Fed Cup 2009, France maintains grip on World Group status



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Monday April 27, 2009


Fed Cup 2009, France maintains grip on World Group status

France has 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, Slovakia’s 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.

Cibulkova 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 Cornet’s 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, Cornet’s 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 Cornet’s frustrations by beating the normally solid counterpuncher at her own game.

Reality Bites

There was always a danger this near-perfection wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. 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, Cornet’s 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.

Amelie 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.

Mauresmo’s 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 couldn’t 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, Dechy’s 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.

The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour is the world’s leading professional sport for women with more than 2,200 players representing 96 nations competing for more than $86 million in prize money at the Tour’s 51 events and four Grand Slams in 31 countries. More than 4.8 million people attended women’s tennis events in 2008 with millions more watching events on television networks around the world. The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour season concludes with the Sony Ericsson Championships – Doha 2009 in Doha, Qatar, from October 27-November 1, and the inaugural Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions in Bali, Indonesia from November 4-8. Further information on the Tour can be found on the Internet at www.sonyericssonwtatour.com




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