Saturday, February 06, 2016

FC I Day 1 Update: Upsets, Russians and Angie... oh, my!

On the first day of the first Fed Cup weekend of 2016... well, you just never know, do you?

Some Fed Cup notes from Day 1 of weekend action:

**WORLD GROUP 1st Round**
...three of the four WG match-ups are knotted at 1-1 after one day of play, while the one that isn't is the tie that was considered to be the one that wouldn't have ANY drama -- but it's turned out to be the craziest of them all.

In Cluj-Napoca, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova both lost their Day 1 matches, as the Romanian's decision to delay nasal surgery to play this weekend is now a "why-bother?" topic of discussion, while Kvitova will have just as many questions riding on the HUGE match-up between the two on Sunday. One of them is going to be go 0-2 for the weekend. Halep had the chance to be the hero on home soil, but she could turn out to be the goat (and I don't mean Greatest of All Time, either). After winning the 1st set in a tie-break over Karolina Pliskova, Halep was broken at 4-4 in the 2nd set and then saw Pliskova win eight of the last ten games of the match starting with that break.

Pliskova won 6-7(4)/6-4/6-2 in 2:30 to notch her first win in four meetings against Halep. With the opening loss it seemed as if the Romanians were now in deep trouble, what with Kvitova playing on an indoor court seemingly an unbeatable force. But then Monica "I'll forehand slice and dice you to death if you let me" Niculescu stepped in and proved the notion wrong, making up for Halep's loss by upsetting Kvitova 6-3/6-4. Playing to chants of "Mon-i-ca, Mon-i-ca!" from the stands, Niculescu committed just 12 UE errors in the match to the Czech's 46. "I said I am going to play slice because it is my game," said the Romanian. "In the end it was perfect -- I think the slice was bothering her."

So, that 2016-17 Romanian challenge for the FC title prediction is still breathing... no matter how many times Simona has to gulp in air. Oh, if only the Swarmettes' "best" player actually played like it on the FC stage, their grit might make THEM unbeatable.

In Leipzig, Angelique Kerber looked far fresher and confident than Germany teammate Andrea Petkovic. While Petko squandered an early 1st set break of serve, and was broken late in the 2nd after holding true until 4-4 en route to losing 6-3/6-4 to Belinda Bencic (5-1 in FC), fresh-from-her-AO-title Kerber arrived to avoid a second straight 0-2 Day 1 hole for the Germans after one day of play. She handled Swiss Timea Bacsinszky a 6-1/6-3 loss, blasting out of the gates by winning the first five games of the match. So, it looks like this tie might just hinge on Kerber vs. Bencic on Sunday. Said Bencic, "I really feel I belong in between the best players in the world. It makes me happy to be on the big stage." Well, the 18-year old will now get what she wishes for.

Also, Martina Hingis might just play a big role in this tie yet.

In Marseille, French Captain Amelie Mauresmo's faith in Kristina Mladenovic didn't produce the expected dividends, but Caroline Garcia bailed them both out with a fine performance. Mladenovic showed all that is good as well as wrong in her game in a 1-6/6-4/6-1 loss to Camila Giorgi, who "unofficially" looks to have seized the lead role on Team Italia this weekend. Mladenovic's serve did her in, as her ten aces were overruled by eleven double-faults, and her service just fell apart in the final two sets. She served at a 32% and 28% clip in the final two sets, and Giorgi won 30 of 44 return points. Garcia evened the tie in match #2 with a 6-3/7-5 win over veteran Sara Errani. A year ago, the Pastries came back from a 0-2 Day 1 deficit on the road against the Italians. Such a Herculean effort won't be necessary for the away-from-home-this-time Italians, looking to reach the semis for the seventh time in eight years.

Meanwhile, in Moscow... things would only get worse for Maria & Co. as the day wore on.

Whatever is floating around the Hordette squad this weekend, it isn't good. Whether it be lingering uneasiness surrounding Sharapova's possible unwillingness to play FC this weekend (after putting the team on her back and leading it to the final a year ago), or her only being in Moscow because she was threatened to not be allowed to play in Rio if she didn't show up, or her maybe only wanting to play doubles (maybe due to her previous forearm injury) and whether it was her decision or that of "others" to sit, she'll surely be assigned blame in some quarters if Russia manages to lose to the seemingly under-womaned Dutch team tomorrow. And that very well could happen, considering Ekaterina Makarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova BOTH "spit the bit" on Saturday and lost singles matches to, respectively, Kiki Bertens and Richel Hogenkamp, to put the hosting Hordettes down 0-2.

Bertens improved her FC mark to 12-1 with a 6-3/6-4 win over a discombobulated Makarova, then #141 Hogenkamp came in and knocked off #17 Kuznetsova 7-6(4)/5-7/10-8 in a Fed Cup record 4-hour match. In the 3rd, Hogenkamp had served for the match at 5-4, only to see Sveta break and then hold a MP at 7-6. Ultimately, the 23-year old Dutch woman's converted MP pushed her to a final one-point edge (146-145) in total points on the day against the veteran as both players littered the scorecard with winners and unforced errors. Kuznetsova had more winners (44-34), but also more UE's (72-56). Hardly a surprise, really, when BOTH Svetas show up to play a match.

Now, the question will be whether or not Sharapova will now play singles. And if she doesn't, will it be by choice or because "others" are already preparing to place the blame on her shoulders for NOT playing rather than on those of the former slam winner and semifinalist who crumbled under the pressure on Day 1.

Of course, there's always Daria Kasatkina. Can you feel it?

...WG II isn't without it's twisty/turny ties, either.

In Bratislava, the Slovaks and Aussies are knotted at 1-1 after Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, off to an horrendous start in '16, averted further disaster by avoiding a match #1 upset at the hands Arina Rodionova, ranked 246 spots below her. In a 3:02 match, Rodionova led 7-5/4-1 before the Slovak took advantage of the suddenly tight Aussie, saved three BP in game #11 of the 2nd before getting a break to take the set, and then rode the momentum to a 5-7/7-5/6-0 victory. Said Rodionova of the crazy match, "It had blood, tears, cramping... there was everything out there." Schmiedlova had cut her knee during the match, hence the "blood." Sam Stosur then defeated Jana Cepelova 6-3/6-4 to send things to Sunday on equal footing.

In Kraljevo, the Spanish ruled over the Serbs. Why, it was as if Serbia was missing its good luck charm or something. Which, of course, it was, as Aleksandra Krunic sat out the weekend due to surgery, and her absence looks like it will once again coincide with a Team Serbia loss, just as it has at every Bracelet-less tie since the '12 final. Garbine Muguruza defeated Ivana Jorovic 6-3/6-1 (on MP #8), then Carla Suarez-Navarro wasn't much more generous to Jelena Jankovic, winning 6-4/6-2.

In Quebec City, the Genie-less Canadians are still in it against the Vika-less Belarusians. Aliaksandra Sasnovich's 6-4/2-6/6-3 win over just-turned-19 Francoise Abanda gave BLR the advantage, but Aleksandra Wozniak, the all-time Canadian Fed Cupper making her big comeback from injury, then evened things out with a 6-2/6-2 victory over you're-the-leader-now-act-like-it Olga Govortsova to make things very interesting heading into Sunday.

In Kailua Kona, Hawaii, the American squad went in against Radwanska-less Poland with a decided roster advantage. After a brief rocky stretch, Sloane Stephens downed Magda Linette 6-2/6-4, winning the final six games of the match after falling down a double-break at 4-0 in the 2nd set. In the second match, despite often looking to be playing at about 60% (Lindsay Davenport's estimation) energy/health level, Venus Williams (18-2 in FC) downed Paula Kania 7-5/6-2, surging late in the 1st set to break the Pole in her final two serve games (Kania served for the 1st set) and then taking the 2nd with less drama and hand-wringing from the sidelines. So, as it should be, the U.S. is up 2-0 heading into Sunday.

Hmmm, Mary Joe REALLY can't screw this up now, right? Hmmm. Of course, if Venus isn't up to going on Sunday, and match #3 goes to Poland, never say never...

**Zone Play**
...two teams were promoted out of this zone to spring's WG II Playoffs, and one of them wasn't the hosting Israeli team. Though they gave it a good effort.

Israel managed to make it out of pool play at the expense of a Croatian team that stumbled when it needed to thrive, but the home crowd was disappointed when Shahar Peer and Julia Glushko were swept in the promotional playoff by, respectively, Kateryna Bondarenko (6-1/6-1) and Lesia Tsurenko (7-6/7-6) as the Svitolina-less Ukrainian team moves on. I'm not sure anyone is hoping that K-Bond takes her outfit with her to the WG II Playoffs, though.

In the other promotional playoff, Belgium swept the Brits as both Ysaline Bonaventure and Alison Van Uytvanck wrapped up dual undefeated weeks with three-sets wins over, in order, Katie Swan and Heather Watson. Afterward, the Waffles got soggy... on purpose.

=AMERICAS I at Santa Cruz, BOL= the Americas zone, the key match-up ultimately came in pool play.

Argentina's deciding doubles win from Maria Irigoyen & Catalina Pella over Brazil's Paula Cristina Goncalves & Beatriz Haddad (tour title winners in Bogota in '15) on Friday put the Argentine team into the promotional playoff over the Brazilians. Once there, Catalina Pella, 23, and Nadia Podoroska, 18, proved to fill their first-ever roles as team leaders quite well. The teenager, for one, went 4-0 for the week and finished off Paraguay in the PP with a straight sets win over Montserrat Gonzalez.

...Japan had to battle to stay alive all week, but in the end went down to bitter defeat.

With much difficulty, Japan reached the promotional playoff by winning two of three ties by the score of 2-1 thanks to Shuko Aoyama & Eri Hozumi winning deciding doubles matches over India (in Sania Mirza's only match of the week) and Thailand. In the PP, once again things came down to the doubles against Taiwan. But what Mirza was unable to do, the Chan sisters did with ease, as Hao-Ching & Yung-Jan defeated Aoyama/Hozumi 6-3/6-3 to secure the win for host nation Taiwan.

...Monica Puig had a great week for the hosting Puerto Rican squad. But she leaves with a really nasty taste in her mouth.

After going undefeated in singles and doubles in pool play for the week, including winning 48 of 50 games in singles, Puig carried PUR into the promotional playoff vs. Chile, which had finished just second in its pool. Once again, Puig won her singles match over Daniela Seguel 6-1/6-2, sending the tie to the deciding doubles. There, Puig & Ana Sofia Cordero led Andrea Koch-Benvenuto & Seguel 5-3 and held MP in the 3rd set before the Chilean duo charged back to win the 2:10 match 6-1/3-6/7-5 to advance. Now Monica knows how Kristyna Pliskova feels. Sort of, only seven fewer MP and a whole lot less aces.

In the other promotional playoff in Americas II, Venezuela defeated Guatemala with Andrea Gamiz finishing off an undefeated week in singles to clinch the victory.

And, finally... oh, shut up, Tracy.

For once, prior to Tennis Channel's coverage of USA/POL, the pre-show co-host (I'm not sure who it was, truthfully -- Ian Eagle, maybe?) brought up a long-talked-about (here, anyway) topic in the form of a question, asking, "Shouldn't we (the U.S.) expect more out of our Fed Cup team... than to be fighting to get into the top group (from World Group II)?"

Of course, how did Tracy Austin construct her excuse? Umm, by noting that the U.S. has won the more Fed Cup titles (17) than any other nation, and saying it was about how often the top players (and we know who she was talking about, because only one player would really give Team USA an advantage) play.

So, the U.S. can't win unless Serena is on the team? Really? Well, I got some important news -- she won't be on the team many more times over the next few years. She does turn 35 this season, after all, and she can't play forever. So that won't be a ready excuse for much longer. Sorry, Tracy, but that just doesn't cut it on a weekend when the Netherlands, already IN WG I, it should be noted, is up 2-0 on the Russians in Moscow with Kiki Bertens and Richel Hogenkamp leading the way. Is the inability to lure top-ranked player(s) to EVERY U.S. FC tie a factor in the general lack of success? Sure, but it's not ONLY about having the very best player in the world on the roster. Seems to me that none of the other championship teams have had the best player in the world on their roster, yet somehow they've been able to win. The U.S. doesn't even compete with or against the top level squads, and that's not just because Serena (and/or Venus, for that matter) doesn't play every tie.

And the seventeen titles? Well, four were in the 1960s, seven consecutive came between 1976-82, then three from 1986-90. So, fourteen came in the first twenty-eight years of FC, while three have come in the last twenty-five (26, if you count the title-less '16), with the last coming sixteen years ago in 2000.

There's a bit more to it than "the top players" playing, or not playing. So, way to avoid the question, Tracy. Congrats. Of course, Lindsay Davenport then beat the same drum about "getting players to commit" to and "want to win" Fed Cup. Oddly enough, she said this as her good friend Mary Joe was on the screen. Hmmm, I wonder who's actually supposed to be in charge of convincing those players to commit and getting them to want to win? Hmmm. I wonder. Hmmm. Who could it be? Hmmm.

Not that anyone on TC (or ESPN) would ever say bring that up... the coverage of the U.S. Fed Cup efforts, and tennis in general, is far too incestuous for that, with commentators having too many good friends in high positions for any real truths to be spoken or questions of competence raised. At least not for long. And if they are... well, they're just avoided and the players are quickly blamed for not participating A WEEK AFTER A MAJOR.

So, we're still watchin' you, Mary Joe... don't let the relative quiet of this weekend lull you into a false sense of superiority regarding your performance as Captain.

(All right, so there's that.)

I'll have the complete weekly wrap-up of the opening Fed Cup week of '16 after the weekend, probably on Monday as I suspect I'll be taking a "Super Bowl break" tomorrow.

(Psst... I'll go with Carolina 36-10, by the way.)

All for now.


Blogger Diane said...

Team Russia is having a giant "Oh Nadia" moment! That photo of Sveta lying flat on her back on the court following match point is priceless. I mean, it's everything! And really, they should have been ready for Kiki Bertens, who is a Fed Cup beast in her own right. If Kiki beats another Russian, it could get interesting: Kuznetsova is a doubles expert, but will she be okay to play? Makarova is a doubles expert, but--well, you know. One of them would have to play, though, to avoid Russia's creating a team of Sharapova/Kasatkina. Because I don't think those two have practiced together, you know? What a mess! Russia....

Sat Feb 06, 07:33:00 PM EST  
Blogger Eric said...

LOL Sharapova/Kasatkina!! Or rather Sharapova in any doubles combo. If Russia did that, it would shock everyone! You would think that Kuznetsova/Makarova would make a good doubles team... But honestly, I hope that Sharapova isn't asked to play bc I want to see how Russia handles the Olympic berth process. Sharapova's fame vs. Russia's nationalism and rules.

I love how these ties are so competitive now. Every country has a superstar and a good supporting cast.

Sun Feb 07, 09:52:00 AM EST  
Blogger Eric said...

Why did Germany pull petko? That's a mistake. Unelss Petko is hurt.

Sun Feb 07, 09:54:00 AM EST  

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