The Russian Fed Cup by BNP Paribas team has reached the final for the fifth time in the last seven years, which gives good evidence of how dominant Russian women’s tennis has been in the last decade.However, the road to this year’s final has not been without its difficulties...
World Group first round
Russia 3-2 France, Moscow
The Russian 2011 Fed Cup campaign started in Moscow to the delight of the fans almost two years after Russia last played a Fed Cup by BNP Paribas match at home. And the good news did not stop there... Maria Sharapova was back in the team for first time since 2007.
However, the visiting team, France, were determined to end the party mood and so they did from the very beginning.
The first rubber saw Alize Cornet, who had never won a Fed Cup singles match before, get off to the best of the starts against twice-Grand-Slam-winner Svetlana Kuznetsova. The Russian seemed to be in total control of the match after winning the first set and breaking Cornet in the second to take a 2-0 lead. But the French reacted amazingly and took advantage of a poor service run from Kuznetsova to take the second set.
“I was a set down and 0-2 down, I just tried to keep calm and my focus and just keep on trying to do what I had to do, and I just started to play better and better,” said Cornet.
The third set started with both players unable to hold their serves for the first six games. Both Corzet and Kuznetsova seemed to have equal options of victory until Corzet rolled her ankle after trying to hit a forehand. After a lengthy time out, the French player returned to the court under the worried look of captain Escude. But the injury did not hamper Corzet’s performance and the No. 67 wrapped a surprising 63 36 46 over the Russian star.
“I didn’t know what condition my ankle was in, but I said to myself, I would rather die than give up on this match, and I would have played with one leg, such was my desire not to retire,” said the world No. 67.
France was one rubber up in Moscow and all the pressure was now on the prodigal daughter Sharapova. The Russian No. 1 player had the task of levelling the tie as she faced Virginie Razzano. The last meeting between the two players had only been one month ago at the Australian Open, where the Russian had prevailed but this time things started in a very different way. Both players struggled with their serves in the first set but the French managed to break and hold in the decisive ninth game just in time to take a 1-0 lead.
“I was giving her far too many free points, I wasn’t serving well, and I wasn’t really being aggressive on the court and I was giving her the opportunity to hit the first ball, and I think the court really suited her today,” said Sharapova.
Razzano took an early lead in the second set and, with the score at 4-1 for the French, the match seemed almost over. But the Russian star reacted and reeled off three straight games to get herself back on level terms.
But the reaction was not complete and Razzano again broke her opponent on the ninth game and took advantage of her first match point to confirm a 36 46 victory. Russia was left under an immense pressure for the second day.
“I put a lot of pressure on Maria’s returns today and she made a lot of double faults today. I managed to serve well today and I am really pleased with the way I played,” said Razzano.
On the second day, Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova were given the entire responsibility for the Russian team to fight back and book a place in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinals.
And both players won their respective singles matches: Pavlyuchenkova beat Cornet in a very tight match 36 63 62 and Kuznetsova did the same against Razzano with a straight 64 64 victory. This amazing comeback meant that the clash was to be taken into a winner-takes-all fifth match-up.
The two singles heroes of the second day teamed up to face the French pair Alize Conet and Julie Coin. The first set was very tight and it went to the tie-break in which the Russians prevailed.
After a very disappointing start, the semifinals were only a set away for the locals and Pavlyuchenkova and Kuznetsova were determined not to allow more suspense in what had been a thrilling tie. After taking the lead in a very even first set, the Russian heroes completely outplayed the French pair in the second set to the delight of the noisy local crowd and sealed a stunning comeback with a 76(4) 60 victory.
World Group semifinals
Russia fielded a very powerful team to face another Fed Cup giant, the previous year winners Italy. Both teams have dominated the competition over the last seven years with no other team winning a title in this period. Russia lifted the trophy in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008 and Italy in 2006, 2009 and 2010. However, the Southern Europeans arrived in Russia weakened due to the absence of their No. 1 Francesca Schiavone.
The action started with Russia’s No. 1 Vera Zvonareva taking on Italy’s No.2 Sara Errani. The Russian was in imperious form and it was clear by her attitude that she was very happy of returning to Fed Cup after two years of absence. The World No. 3 won the first set without dropping any games and only conceded two in the second to leave an overall score of 60 63.
Zvonareva was delighted. “When I woke up this morning I was nervous because I am excited to play here to play for my country,” said the Russian. “You have to work hard to stay focused and keep your concentration sometimes but I did a good job today.”
The second match between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Roberta Vinci was not as one-sided as Zvonareva’s one. The first set was clearly won by the Russian 62 but the French took an early 4-1 lead in the second and had a ball for 5-1 before being pushed to a tiebreak. It was a sequence of events which was to rob her of much-needed energy for the third set.
“The first set was pretty comfortable as I think I played the right way but in the second set she started to come in because I think she knew that she could not win from the baseline and then it got a little bit tougher,” said Kuznetsova. “In the third set I tried to keep her under pressure and that went well. Overall I think it was a good match.”
The only option left for the Italians was to win the remaining three matches on the second day but this task was going to be proven impossible.
Sunday started with the clash between the No. 1’s, Zvonareva vs. Vinci. The Russian had to battle hard to beat the Italian, especially in a very tight first set. Eventually, the difference in ranking was made evident and Zvonareva took the first set 64.
In the second set, Vinci never reached the same level of threat as at the beginning of the match and the Russian secured the set, the match and a place in the big final with a 64 62 straight sets victory.
After the match, Zvonareva made clear that she would be available for the final. “I’m always happy to represent my country,” said Russia’s No. 1. “We have some time. I think we will get together with the captain, he will invite players and we will discuss who will be in the team but I am always happy to play in my country and play for Russia so hopefully. We will see.”
The remaining two rubbers ended with two more victories for the Russians as Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova beat Sara Errani 7-6(5) 7-6(4) and the pair Pavlyuchenkova/Ekaterina beat the Italian doubles couple formed by Alberta Brianti and Maria-Elena Camerin.