Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: February Fed Cup

by: Peter Bodo | February 10, 2014

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Sixteen-year-old Swiss Belinda Bencic played beyond her years in just her second Fed Cup tie. (AP Photo)

Another Fed Cup weekend is in the books, and once again those of us who are fans of the international team competition are entitled to be dismayed by the degree to which it is ignored by the Media Industrial Complex.

But let’s not worry about that for now. We know what we know and we like what we like, right? So, let’s keep it in the family and emulate our forbears in Rome, giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to the gladiatrixes (yeah, I made it up) of the past weekend.

We have to give it up for Team Italy. In what can be called a “transition” year at best, the squad came up big on the road, sweeping the United States in live rubbers (the Americans would go on to collect a face-saving doubles win to lower the deficit to 1-3).

Actually, you could have called this tie a battle of teams in transition, as the United States was without the services of Serena Williams or Sloane Stephens. That would seem to provide balm for bruised American egos, but for the fact that the Italians were without the services of Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, or capable veterans Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone. Team USA was led by world No. 37 Madison Keys, who was ranked three places higher than anyone on the Italian squad. But Keys managed to extract just three games from No. 84 Camila Giorgi on a hard court in Cleveland (Italy’s No. 2, behind Karin Knapp), after Knapp put the U.S. in a 0-1 hole in the first match.

Eleven Russian players, led by Maria Sharapova, were ranked above No. 158 Victoria Kan. All of them declined to play last weekend.

Granted, the Olympic Games in Sochi are a big deal. Everyone who’s anyone wants to be there. And a lucrative tournament in Doha begins this week. Unfortunately, all the excitement and anticipation left precious few players willing to represent Russia in Hobart, Australia.

The result? Russia was ripped apart and left for dead under the blazing sun, winning a grand total of 11 games in the the three live rubbers.

Note to the 11 refusniks: The Games had barely begun when the tie in Hobart was over. There’s always someone to remind us that when it comes to patriotism, it’s much easier to talk the talk than walk the walk.

Angelique Kerber of Germany has experienced plenty of ups and downs in recent months, but there was no doubt about her direction of travel once she hit Bratislava in the Slovak Republic for a tough, away tie.

This was perhaps the most intriguing of all the World Group ties—before it began. Dominika Cibulkova, the Slovak No. 1, was coming off the best Grand Slam result of her career at the Australian Open. The No. 2 Slovak was mercurial Daniela Hantuchova. Kerber handled both of them without the loss of a set in the second and third rubbers of the tie, after Andrea Petkovic set the table with an unexpected 2-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2 win over Cibulkova.

The only Top 8 player who laced ‘em up last weekend was Agnieszka Radwanska, and she did so in a World Group II tie, leading Poland to a road win in Sweden almost single-handedly.

Sweden’s Johanna Larsson upended Poland’s Katarzyna Riter in the first rubber, but then Radwanska took care of both Sofia Arvidsson and Larsson to put the away team on top, 2-1. When Arvidsson surprised Piter in the fourth rubber, Radwanska was forced to team with Alisja Rosolska for the decisive doubles match. The Poles won it, 6-2, 6-2.

Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic don’t even have the excuse of a Winter Olympics being held in Serbia to justify their disinclination to show up in Montreal for a World Group II tie against emerging tennis power Canada.

Eugenie Bouchard didn’t seem to mind at all. She lost a grand total of four games in two singles matches against Vesna Dolonc and Jovana Jaksic, after Aleksandra Wozniak set her up with a noteworthy upset of Dolonc.

Be honest now, when was the first time you ever heard of Karin Knapp? Now, maybe? She’s a 26-year-old Italian who’s clearly found it difficult to elbow her way into the spotlight that’s been falling on the likes of her fellow countrywomen Schiavone, Pennetta, Errani, and Vinci.

But Knapp is up to No. 40 now, and she had two excellent singles wins to help Italy sweep the U.S. She took out Christina McHale on Saturday and wrapped up the win for Italy with a 6-3, 7-5 triumph over Alison Riske.

It doesn’t make much sense to get truly down on Cibulkova. She still may have been feeling the after-effects of that great run to the Australian Open final a few weeks ago.

But that was then, and this is now—a “now” in which the the choice of ground for Slovakia ought to have made all the difference. But the world No. 13 lost a tight first match to the lowest-ranked singles player in the mix, No. 36 Petkovic, and then failed to get even a set off Kerber in the match that enabled Germany’s sweep.

Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, all of 16 years old, knew she had to do something when Stefenie Voegele, the top-ranked Swiss and WTA No. 47, was upset by No. 87 Virginie Razzano in a World Group II tie before an enthusiastic French crowd in Paris.

So the 139th-ranked Swiss prodigy went out and laid a whipping on French No. 1 and WTA No. 25 Alize Cornet to even the tie. Cornet gained a measure of vengeance when defeated Timea Bacsinszky in the third rubber, but then Bencic hammered Razzano, 6-1, 6-1, to drive the tie to a deciding fifth-rubber.

The French won it, as Cornet and Kristina Mladenovic proved too tough for Bencic and Bacsinszky. But it was a great effort by Bencic, in just the second tie of her budding career.

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