2009, France maintains grip on World Group status
avoided relegation from the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World
Group by the skin of its teeth, thanks to a weekend of
heroics by Amelie Mauresmo.
In the first reverse singles on Sunday, Slovakias
Dominika Cibulkova had put her team ahead 2-1 with a
gripping three hour defeat of Alize Cornet,
before the two-time Grand Slam champion held off a late
surge by Daniela Hantuchova to level proceedings at two rubbers apiece.
The 29-year-old then continued her vintage display,
combining with Nathalie Dechy to clinch the tie in the
doubles, in the fourth three-set marathon of the meet.
Survives a Thriller
In light of her
tough three set loss to Hantuchova on Saturday, which
extended her sorry Fed Cup record to 0-5, it was no great
surprise when Cornets tension revealed itself in
the first few games of her match against Cibulkova.
Aside from the fact only two places separate the
19-year-olds in the rankings, the Slovak had won
their only previous professional match, and boasts a far
happier Fed Cup history. In fact, up until her loss to
Mauresmo on Saturday, Cibulkova had won five matches in a
row in the competition.
The first few games were close enough, but when the
Slovak broke for 3-1, Cornets plans to try and
contain her emotions flew out the window. Games went on
serve until the Slovak broke again to take the set 62,
firing forehand winners seemingly at will, and mixing her
power play with deft backhand slice. Tellingly, she was
also winning most of the long rallies, adding to Cornets
frustrations by beating the normally solid counterpuncher
at her own game.
There was always a
danger this near-perfection wouldnt last, and it
didnt. Ahead a set and 3-0, Cibulkova had every
reason to think the end was in sight, but errors crept
into her game, giving the hitherto out-of-sorts Cornet
and the French crowd hope. Although Cibulkova continued
to dictate the play, Cornets retrieving became
relentless, and suddenly the score was locked at 5-5.
At that point Cibulkova made what might have turned into
a fatal error, when she stopped play mid-point to
question a close call on the baseline, on a slow ball on
which she had easy play. When the umpire agreed with the
initial call of good, Cornet was presented with a break
point. The young Frenchwoman snapped it up and duly held
serve to take the match to an improbable third set.
Two breaks later Cornet was ahead 4-1, but then her worst
nightmare reared its ugly head, as Cibulkova launched a
final assault that saw her break twice to level at 4-4
and then pull ahead at 5-4. Down two match points Cornet
held on for deuce, and reached a couple of game points of
her own. But a backhand dropshot gave Cibulkova a third
opportunity to clinch the match; after two hours and 47
minutes, the deal was done when Cornet sent her next ball
long, 62 57 64.
Saves the Day
From the outset it
was clear the encounter between 29-year-old Mauresmo and
26-year-old Hantuchova would be a very different style of
match, with both players coming off rousing wins on
Saturday and characteristically intent on forcing the
issue. Engaging all-court tennis was the result.
Mauresmos serve came under early pressure in a
marathon game at 2-2 in the first set, and it proved to
be a trend throughout the match.
Indeed, after fending off two more break points for 5-4,
Mauresmo held three set points in the next game before
Hantuchova held. Two games later, though, a Slovak
forehand floated long to give the Frenchwoman another
chance to take the opener, which she did by firing a
trademark off-backhand down the line.
Carried on a wave of patriot support, the momentum stayed
with Mauresmo till 5-0 in the second set, although once
again the French No. 2 was forced to save a swathe of
early break points. But, serving to stay in the match the
Slovak finally got onto the scoreboard, before proceeding
to break Mauresmo twice as the French star served for the
match. Back on serve at 4-5, Hantuchova couldnt
quite hold on, however. A dazzling backhand dive volley
saved one match point, and a big serve the second, but
Mauresmo sealed the victory on a forehand error, 75 64.
It was a high quality match, neither of us wanted
to let go, but I wanted to take every opportunity to take
her out of her comfort zone and make the most of every
opportunity, Mauresmo said. It paid off.
Down to the wire
With Mauresmo back on court to contest the decisive
doubles rubber with 30-year-old Nathalie Dechy
as her partner, the French might have been expected to
keep the momentum for a relatively routine win. Both have
won doubles titles on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour this
year, and while Hantuchova is no slouch at the
discipline, Cibulkova rarely plays.
Not that it showed, as the Slovaks came out full of
beans, Cibulkova proving a dab hand at reflex volleys.
Mauresmo was broken in the first game, and the Slovaks
held the advantage to take the opener, putting them just
one set away from promotion to the World Group for the
first time since 2004.
But in the second set, Dechys net coverage played a
key role in helping the French fight their way back into
the match. The third set was littered with service
breaks, with the Slovaks playing catch-up until 4-4, when
Hantuchova was unable to hold onto her serve. With
Mauresmo serving in the next game, Dechy delivered the
winning backhand volley, and with the scoreboard reading
46 61 64, the celebrations began.
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