Slovak Republic won a dramatic Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off against Serbia 3-2 after its top player Daniela Hantuchova produced two impeccable performances on Sunday.
The world No. 23 first defeated Serbia’s No. 1 Jelena Jankovic 76 75 in the second day’s opening singles rubber to give Slovakia a 2-1 lead. However, Bojana Jovanovski then rekindled Serbia’s hopes with an impressive 61 76 victory over Magdalena Rybarikova to force a decisive doubles encounter.
Hantuchova, the world No. 32 in doubles, held firm as she and Rybarikova produced one crucial winner after another to lead the 2002 Fed Cup winners to a 64 63 win over Jankovic and Jovanovski, steering their country into the top tier of the competition for the first time since 2004.
After its maiden season among the elite, Serbia will head back to World Group II uncertain of a quick return to the top flight.
“The problem is we need a better doubles to compete in World Group I, none of our girls play doubles on the WTA tour and that turned out to be a huge problem this week like it did in the first-round defeat to Russia,” explained Serbian team captain, Dejan Vranes, in a courtside interview as he watched his Slovak opposite number Matej Liptak lead his team in a lap of honour. “There is no magic wand, meaning that we will have to ponder and work hard to find a solution.”
Hantuchova holds her nerve
Hantuchova made a bright start against Jankovic, carving out a 4-2 lead and a 40-15 advantage on Jankovic’s serve before the Serbian got the home fans going with her trademark ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. She took the upper hand in a titanic tussle which produced a plethora of spectacular shots on both sides to earn a set point on Hantuchova’s serve, but the Slovakian held her nerve and then romped through the tiebreak to swing the match her way.
Although Jankovic did well to stay in a rip-roaring second set, she eventually succumbed to punishing ground strokes by the Slovakian, who also tormented her rival throughout the match with superb drop shots and powerful volleys which sapped the strength from the home crowd favourite.
Having set up two match points on Jankovic’s serve in the final game, Hantuchova needed no second invitation as she took the first with a searing forehand winner down the line to wrap up the match in 2 hours 3 minutes, winning 72 per cent of her net points.
“I made too many mistakes and she played the crucial points very well so all credit to her,” said Jankovic, who hit 51 unforced errors to her opponent’s 33.
When it seemed Slovakia would coast to a comfortable victory, Jovanovski, who was crushed 62 62 by Hantuchova on her Fed Cup debut on Saturday, delighted the vociferous home crowd with a blistering display and an emphatic victory over a far more heralded rival.
The 18-year old, ranked 117th on the WTA tour, exposed world No. 53 Rybarikova to a barrage of stinging baseline shots in the opening set. She fell behind 2-0 in the second but then raced into a 4-2 lead before showing the first signs of nerves in a dramatic climax to the match.
Jovanovski twice served for the match but was unable to finish off her reeling opponent and the match headed into a tense tiebreak, where Jovanovski won the last four points to come from 4-3 behind and claim the first upset of her young career.
Slovakia too strong
Although Jovanovski’s win restored Serbia’s hopes of completing the come back and avoiding the drop from the top tier of the competition, Hantuchova’s experience and quality in the doubles was too much for a patched-up Serbian team with the tie hanging in the balance.
Jovanovski took Ana Jovanovic’s place alongside Jankovic and although they fought valiantly to stay in the match, Hantuchova was on top of her game whenever Serbia threatened to take the upper hand.
Rybarikova, on the other hand, regained her composure for the doubles after losing to Jovanovski and the Slovak supremacy was epitomised by the tie’s final point, when Jankovic and Jovanovski collided at the net to send the visiting team into raptures.
“We are overjoyed to have won this dramatic tie and with Dominika Cibulkova back, we will have three outstanding players and a real chance of going a long way next season because on our day we can beat any team from World Group I,” Slovakia’s team captain Matej Liptak said. “We knew we would have the edge over Serbia in the doubles and that’s why we didn’t panic when Rybarikova lost a singles rubber she was expected to win. She was under a lot of pressure while Jovanovski played a fantastic match, but the most important thing is that we came out on top.”