MOSCOW, RUSSIA: It was business as usual for Russia as once again Shamil Tarpischev’s side moved through to yet another Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinal, following what was a closer than expected 3-2 victory against Spain.
Considering Russia had not lost a first round tie in the competition since 2006, their opponents, who were captained for the first time by Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who herself won the Fed Cup five times during her distinguished career as a player, knew they had a job on their hands to try and move through to the next round.
This was Spain’s return to the World Group after a two-year absence from the competition, however they were not helped by the loss of their two leading players, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Anabel Medina Garrigues, and Sanchez-Vicario knew it was going to be tough going up against the likes of Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
“I think we have nothing to lose, the favourites are the Russians. For me it’s my first time as a captain and I am looking forward to this competition. My players are ready to play and they have nothing to lose, so they can give one hundred percent and be relaxed on court.”
The 40-year-old Spanish captain’s worst fears were proved right after a very one sided opening singles on Saturday, with straight sets victories for Sharapova and Kuznetsova against Silvia Soler-Espinosa, who was making her debut in the competition, and the more experienced Carla Suarez Navarro. Such was the Russian pair’s dominance, they would drop just seven games between them as they put their country into a two rubbers to love lead.
It proved to be a happy return for Sharapova to Fed Cup after the world No. 3 lost in very disappointing fashion to France’s Virginie Razzano almost exactly a year ago. And the 24-year-old said that defeat was playing on her mind as she opened proceedings for the Russians.
“It was tough in the beginning as I felt a little bit nervous having not really played well last year. I really wanted to change that result and I just concentrated on my game despite not knowing too much about my opponent.”
With just one victory needed to send Russia into a sixth successive semifinal, Sharapova was expected to wrap things up for the hosts with the minimum of fuss on Sunday against Suarez Navarro.
Fed Cup ties often have twists and turns, and this encounter proved to be no exception. The Russian No. 1 had to pull out on the morning of the game through illness, while her expected replacement, Ekaterina Makarova, also fell victim to a wrist injury. This left poor Nadia Petrova just two hours to prepare for a match-up against her Spanish opponent.
In just 24 minutes, Petrova found herself a set down, after losing the opener 6-0. The Russian put up more of a fight in the second but she was powerless to stop Suarez Navarro from giving Spain a lifeline and hope of still winning the tie.
“It was obviously frustrating to know that I had to play just two hours before the match. Physiologically it was very difficult for me to prepare because I was in such a rush to get to the warm up and getting myself ready to play so when I got onto the court, I could not get my thoughts together,” Petrova commented.
Russia still had the dependable Svetlana Kuznetsova to turn to, to try and wrap up the tie for the hosts, as she took on Soler-Espinosa. And despite a wobble in the second set, where the world No. 19 contrived to lose five successive games and hand the set to her opponent, the St. Petersburg native eventually pulled through to send Russia through to the last four.
“I was totally dead in the first set, but I knew I had to push myself some more because then I would have to put yet more effort into the doubles, so I am very happy I managed to pull through in the singles,” commented Kuznetsova.
Russia will now play Serbia at home in April for a place in the Final, though they will have to probably do so without Maria Sharapova. Russia’s captain Tarpischev said that “the Florida based player would probably only play for her country if the game was in the United States, given the 24-year-old plays most of her events in North America.”
However, even without the world No. 3 in their ranks, the Russians will start as strong favourites against the Serbs, as they continue their bid to win the Fed Cup for the first time since 2008.