Monday, April 27, 2009

Wk.16- The Cinderella Bannerettes (and other Fed Cup fairy tales)

Some of 2009's more remarkable tennis stories are taking place in the world of Fed Cup.

A few years ago, Italy stunned the women's game with its first-ever FC championship. But that Team Italia was led by an experienced core group of good, if oft-underachieving players, and never had to face a Russian team that'd been dumped out of the field in the 1st Round months earlier.

This weekend, that little detail was taken care of -- by essentially that same group of players -- en route to yet another Fed Cup championship match.

The Russians had won four of the last five FC titles, but entered the semifinal against Italy without the services of world #1 Dinara Safina and injured, originally-named team member Vera Zvonareva. Nadia Petrova wasn't chosen to play singles, and coach Shamil Tarpischev's move to put up the still-slumping Anna Chakvetadze against Flavia Pennetta in the opening singles match proved to be the wrong-headed decision of the entire Fed Cup weekend. She stumbled right out of the box, getting blitzed by Pennetta (losing the 2nd set at love) and putting the Hordettes in a hole from which they were never able to climb.

Usual team leader Svetlana Kuznetsova fell in three to Francesca Schiavone to see Italians take a commanding 2-0 lead. The Contessova bounced back to defeat Pennetta on Sunday, but the die was cast. Youngster Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova battled gamely against Schiavone with Russian survival on the line, splitting two tight sets, but couldn't prevent the veteran from seizing control in the 3rd and clinching Italy's third trip to the FC final in the last four years.

Just goes to show that even with the best pool of talent in the world to choose from, the Russians can be still be undone by a botched coaching decision... and a perennially underrated set of Italians. Of course, yet another "surprise" run to the final by Italy has nothing on the American Bannerettes. As difficult as it is to believe, the bigger Fed Cup story this weekend was taking place in Brno, Czech Republic.

Back in the 1st Round in February, U.S. coach Mary Joe Fernandez pulled all the right strings in her first tie in the head job. Without a Williams, Davenport or Harkleroad at her disposal, and with (then) Bethanie Mattek injured, MJF picked FC neophytes Melanie Oudin and Julie Ditty to fill out the roster. As it turned out, Oudin got a huge win that erased a 1-2 deficit against Argentina, sending the tie to a live doubles rubber, where Ditty and Liezel Huber won to get Team USA to the semifinals. This time, on the road (but on hard court), Fernandez went with FC newbies (now) Mattek-Sands and Alexa Glatch.

For a while, things didn't look good. Mattek-Sands, slumping in singles since her post-marriage return to the tour, went down meekly in both her singles matches without winning a set. But Glatch, 19, played the steadying role of pseudo-"veteran" to the hilt. Just as Harkleroad had saved the American bacon a year ago after Sabine Lisicki upset Lindsay Davenport in the opening match of the USA/GER tie, and Oudin performed in avenging fashion a few months ago, Glatch barely blinked in the face of the pressure. Showing amazing poise, she blew out a path through the more experienced Iveta Benesova and Petra Kvitova, allowing just six games in total as the Czechs crumbled in front of their home fans with the team on the brink of its first FC final since the Czech Republic became an independent nation.

Hmmm... Oudin, Glatch, McHale, Ahn. No one should ever be allowed to question the heart and/or fighting spirit of this new group of Bannerettes, huh?

Going in, I never really thought this tie would get to the doubles and Huber/Mattek-Sands. Late replacement Lucie Safarova's win over Mattek-Sands in Match #3 gave the Czechs a chance to make things easier on themselves and wrap things up in four matches. Then, when Benesova and Kveta Peschke led 6-2/5-2 and held a match point in the decider, I surely didn't expect that my decision to go check out the NFL draft on ESPN would mean I'd miss all the live fun... but that's what happened. Whoops. I tuned in later and was stunned to see the match still going on, and the Americans mere points away from a come-from-behind win. Needless to say, I was a bit peeved.

Never trust a pair of nervous Czechs, I guess.

I did see Peschke's wild shot that set the village and soul-crushing Czech avalanche down the mountain, though. Benesova, who'd already failed to show a pulse in singles, soon followed Peschke's lead in a performance that'll surely be up for every year-end In-Need-of-the-Heimlich-Manuever Award seven months from now. After being on the brink of a FC result not experienced in Brno in over twenty years, the Czechs saw the Americans reach THEIR first Fed Cup final since 2003... without a Williams, Davenport, Capriati or Seles anywhere in sight, too.

Huber and Mattek-Sands won 2-6/7-6/6-1 in front of a stunned crowd and disheartened Maiden team, somehow wrapping up Team USA's second FC victory this season after being down 1-2 heading into the final singles match. Amazing.

Now the question will be whether or not the Cinderella Bannerettes (and South Africa's own Huber) will be joined by one or even two Sisters come November. Maybe. If so, Serena and Venus would get much of the major media glory if the U.S. were to go into Italy (on clay, hardly an easy task) and win an eighteenth Fed Cup title, but the "grunts" and the "General" will have done most of the hard work behind the scenes. No matter what happens in seven months, credit should go where it's due right now.

To Huber. To Ditty. To Oudin, Glatch and even Mattek-Sands, too. And, of course, let's not forget Fernandez, who managed to buck history and have lightning strike her coaching decisions twice in three months (maybe Tarpischev should consult her next time around?) with this unlikely performance by another group of mostly FC-virgins.

I said it in February, and I'll say it again. On her way back to Florida, I hope MJF made a side trip to Vegas or Atlantic City. Or at least played the lottery or something. She's got something good working for her right now, and it'd be a shame to let it go to waste.


ITA d. RUS 4-1
USA d. CZE 3-2

Francesca Schiavone, ITA: Schiavone out battled both Kuznetsova and Pavlyuchenkova in three-setters, leading the way for the Italian upset. She's only won one tour singles title in her career, but she'll go down as one of the most consistent Fed Cup players of the decade.

Alexa Glatch, USA: just as Oudin did three months ago, Glatch's prowess in the clutch -- dominance, really -- made Mary Joe Fernandez look like a genius.

Mary Joe Fernandez, USA: speaking of MJF, if she wins a FC crown playing with mostly a "B" team of players in her first season as coach, maybe some publisher should sign her up for some sort of "Doing More with Less" type of instructional/inspirational self-help book.

(World Group Playoffs)
SRB d. ESP 4-0
FRA d. SVK 3-2
GER d. CHN 3-2
UKR d. ARG 5-0

Jelena Jankovic, SRB: with wins over Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez and Anabel Medina-Garrigues, JJ clinched Serbia's first appearance in the FC Group I in 2010 and extended her own personal '09 winning streak to seven matches. Look out Stuttgart, here she comes.

Amelie Mauresmo, FRA: France was awful in its 1st Round tie with Italy, losing 5-0. Mauresmo bounced back big time, getting wins over both Cibulkova and Hantuchova and joining Nathalie Dechy in doubles to salt away the Pastries' 3-2 win.

Sabine Lisicki, GER: she experienced no Charleston hangover, winning Match #1 over Zheng Jie and then closing out Germany's 3-2 win in doubles with Anna-Lena Groenefeld.

Mariya Koryttseva, UKR: with only one Sister Bondarenko (Alona) healthy enough to play, Koryttseva assumed a bigger role. Playing in the #1 singles slot, she knocked off she's-no-Dulko Jorgelina Cravero then teamed with Olga Savchuk in doubles in Ukraine's 5-0 sweep.

(World Group II Playoffs)
BEL d. CAN 3-2
EST d. ISR 3-2
POL d. JPN 3-2
AUS d. SUI 3-1

Yanina Wickmayer, BEL: doing a nice Henin impression, Wickmayer took the reigns of the Belgian team in the tie against Canada. Taking out Canada's best two players -- Wozniak & Dubois -- in both singles and doubles (with Kirsten Flipkens), she had a hand in every point in the Waffles' 3-2 win.

Kai Kanepi, EST: Shahar Peer couldn't do it all for Israel, but Kanepi did for Estonia, grabbing a piece of all three points in the 3-2 victory.

Agnieszka Radwanska, POL: making up for her sister's 0-2 singles mark, A-Rad went 2-0 against Ai Sugiyama and Akiko Morigami and sent the tie to the doubles rubber and the capable hands of Jans/Rosolska.

Samantha Stosur, AUS: playing better and better under pressure as the season has progressed, Stosur notched two wins in Australia's 3-1 win over a Schnyder-less Switzerland.

Klaudia Jans & Alicja Rosolska, POL: the pair have so far only won one tour doubles title as a pair (though they have a handful of ITF crowns), so their win over Morita/Sugiyama in the deciding match in the POL/JPN tie might qualify as their biggest moment as a team. Both are nearly ranked in the doubles Top 50 (Jens #51, Rosolska #45).

Kirsten Flipkens, BEL: Flipkens cracked under the pressure as a singles player in Henin's last Fed Cup appearance a few years back, badly losing a match that forced Henin to play in the doubles contest (she got hurt, and Belgium lost when she was forced to retire from the match). After disappearing for a while after that, Flipkens has been inching her way back over the past year. This weekend, she joined Wickmayer to take out Dubois/Wozniak to secure Belgium's 3-2 win over Canada and get the Waffles closer to a return to Group I just in time for Kim Clijsters to possibly lend a hand in the future.

Liezel Huber, USA: the naturalized American once again anchored the U.S. team's come-from-behind effort, this time playing the part of a Phoenix herself by coming back from the 2-6/2-5, match point down deficit along with Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the deciding doubles rubber. Hmmm, if both Williams sisters decided to play for MJF in the final, would Huber be edged off the schedule entirely if the tie came down to a single doubles match? Could be interesting.

Ana Jovanovic, SRB: ranked #237, Jovanovic provided the final singles win (JJ had two, and AnaIvo one) over Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez in Serbia's 4-0 shutout of '08 FC runners-up Spain.

Team Czech Republic: only Lucie Safarova, who got a win over Mattek-Sands, emerged unscathed in the Czech Republic's crash in Brno. Kvitova was a disappointment in the clutch, while Peschke shined a bit of light on the questions about why such an accomplished doubles player doesn't have nearly as many (or as big of) titles as you might expect. In a matter of two days, did Iveta Benesova erase all the good memories she's so far created over the first four months of the season?

Anna Chakvetadze, RUS: really, did Tarpischev think that Chakvetadze could be counted on to get a win on the road in Match #1? Really?

Alize Cornet, FRA: although they were both three-setters, Cornet still lost two matches against Cibulkova and Hantuchova this weekend, making her 0-4 in FC play in 2009 and, perhaps more importantly, still looking to get over the hump early in this clay season.

Shenay Perry, USA: there was something contagious in the U.S this weekend other than the swine flu -- winning tennis. Perry won the $75K in Dothan, Alabama with wins over Chan Chin-Wei, Ekaterina Bychkova, Angela Haynes, Patricia Mayr and Carly Gullickson in a 4-6/6-1/6-3 final.

Daria Gavrilova, RUS: there was SOME good Russian tennis news this weekend (I mean, other than a Supernova sighting on ESPN, where she's set to appear with top NFL draft pick Matthew Stafford in a makeover segment on the "E:60" program), as the 15-year old Muscovite claimed the Grade I Open International Junior title in Beaulieu, France. She defeated Ukraine's Lyudmyla Kichenok 4-6/6-2/7-6 in the final.

1. USA/CZE SF Match #5 - Huber/Mattek-Sands d. Benesova/Peschke
6-2/5-2 and holding a match point still wasn't enough to ensure that the Maidens would reach their first Fed Cup final since Czechoslovakia defeated the Soviet Union in 1988.
2. ITA/RUS SF Match #2 - Schiavone d. Kuznetsova
The Queens of the Fed Cup in the 2000's (along with maybe Ms. Mauresmo) meet in what turned out to be the match that essentially broke the Russian camel's back. Before this, the Russians had won fifteen of sixteen FC ties, last losing to Belgium in the 1st Round in 2006.
3. ITA/RUS SF Match #4 - Schiavone d. Pavluchenkova
Pavlyuchenkova got "stuck" with the unenviable chore of trying to prevent the Italian tide from rolling completely in. That being said, a younger and even less experienced Oudin pulled off a similar feat against Argentina in the 1st Round, though. Of course, Betina Jozami isn't Schiavone, either.
4. USA/CZE SF Match #4 - Glatch d. Kvitova
I guess the Czechs should have known they were cooked when Glatch framed that overhead with the tippy-top of her racket... and still won the point. Then there was that defensive lunge return that skimmed the net and went into the open court to put the American up 2-0, too.
5. ITA/RUS SF Match #1 - Pennetta d. Chakvetadze
When you go with arguably your fourth-best option in the first match, one is almost led to believe that you're trying to lose. Or at least not trying to win, per se.
FRA/SVK - Dechy/Mauresmo d. Cibulkova/Hantuchova 4-6/6-1/6-4
GER/CHN - Groenefeld/Lisicki d. Peng/Zheng 4-6/7-5/6-2
BEL/CAN - Flipkens/Wickmayer d. Dubois/Wozniak 6-1/6-3
EST/ISR - Ani/Kanepi d. Obziler/Peer 1-6/6-4/8-6
POL/JPN - Jans/Rosolska d. Morita/Sugiyama 1-6/6-3/6-3
after so many recent FC ties that were blowouts, it was quite a wild weekend with six of the ten match-ups coming down to the deciding fifth match.
7. UKR/ARG Match #4 - Savchuk d. Salut
Does Olga Savchuk have a license to operate an olgasavchuk?
8. AUS/SUI Match #2 - Dokic d. Vogele
Dokic is a career 13-2 while representing Australia in Fed Cup play.
9. Bari $25K Final - Alexandra Dulgheru d. Sandra Zahlavova
Finally, a Romanian wins an ITF singles title in 2009.
10. Stuttgart 1st Rd - Azarenka d. Suarez-Navarro
So, she can play on RED clay, too. Hmmm, maybe I should amend my upcoming pick for Stuttgart?

**FED CUP FINALS - 1999-present**
1999 United States def. Russia
2000 United States def. Spain
2001 Belgium def. Russia
2002 Slovak Republic def. Spain
2003 France def. United States
2004 Russia def. France
2005 Russia def. France
2006 Italy def. Belgium
2007 Russia def. Italy
2008 Russia def. Spain

**2010 WORLD GROUP**
Czech Republic
United States

**2010 GROUP II**
Slovak Republic


STUTTGART, GERMANY (Premier $700K/Red Clay)
2008 FINAL: Jankovic d. Cornet
2009 TOP: Safina/Dementieva

Jankovic d. A.Radwanska
Dementieva d. Azarenka
Jankovic d. Dementieva

...will her new crown wear heavily on Safina's head? Going on the theory that it will, I'll go with Dinara's Stuttgart run expiring before the SF... allowing Queen Chaos to continue to build up momentum.

FES, MOROCCO (Int'l $220K/Red Clay)
2008 FINAL: Dulko d. Medina-Garrigues
2009 TOP: Medina-Garrigues/Kleybanova

Medina-Garrigues d. Pavlyuchenkova
Makarova d. Vinci
Medina-Garrigues d. Makarova

...I was planning on picking Maria K., making sure she wouldn't catch me off guard again this week. Of course, she then proceeded to lose in the 1st Round today to Marta Domachowska. She showed me, I guess. The bottom half of the draw might now produce a first-time tour finalist, so I'll get it over with and pick Makarova (another Russian who wasn't playing in play of Anna C. in Italy this weekend, by the way).

All for now.


Blogger jc valencia said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Tue Apr 28, 04:51:00 AM EDT  
Blogger jc valencia said...

shamil really screwed up fielding chaksters in the first rubber, eh?

btw, was i just misinformed or didn't sabine withdrew from the reverse singles due to injury and went on to play play doubles just the same? them germans! tsk tsk

Tue Apr 28, 04:53:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, according to German coach Barbara Rittner, Lisicki was feeling the "stresses and strains" of her win in Charleston and couldn't "recharge her batteries" overnight in time to play the second singles match. Tatjana Malek replaced her, but Peng Shuai defeated her on her fifth match point to take the three-setter and push things to the doubles. Either Lisicki was feeling better, or she swallowed hard and "took one for the team" and played the doubles, though. Either way, it worked out.

Tue Apr 28, 10:24:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

It is also common for a somewhat injured player to skip singles but still play doubles.

Wed Apr 29, 10:50:00 PM EDT  

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