April 26, 2010

Top Tier Performances on the Second Tier

Fed Cup action was not all about the demolishment of the Czechs by the Italians or the nail-biting comeback of the U.S. over the perennial Russian powerhouses. Some of the most interesting action came in the World Group Playoffs, those matches deciding the nations that would compete in next year's main draw.

First up were the Belgians, arguably one of the strongest countries in the WTA, with three players in the top twenty-five. They shoud have had an easy time with the Estonians, whose top competitor Kaia Kanepi has seen her ranking drop from world #18 less than a year ago to #124 now. But things were not so easy.

Kim Clijsters opened up the tie with a straight set win over Maret Ani, a twenty-eight year old challenger who peaked at #63 in 2006. Yanina Wickmayer struggled a bit more in her rubber, dropping the second set to Kanepi before rolling through 6-1 in the third.

Justine Henin had a chance to close things out early on Sunday, but she ran into a surprising wall against Kanepi, who was able to regroup. After losing the first set in a tight tiebreaker, the Estonian shocked the seven-time Grand Slam winner to win the match and save her country from elimination.

Victory was short-lived though, as the new Belgian star, twenty-year-old Yanina Wickmayer herself rebounded after losing the first set in the fourth rubber to Ani and took the next two quickly. Though the winners lost the next doubles match, they'd earned enough wins to secure their spot in the 2011 World Group and attempt to reclaim the title they last won in 2001.

There was another close call in Frankfurt where a German team led by Andrea Petkovic took on the madamoiselles of France. The countries traded wins throughout the weekend, as the Germans took the lead, but the French drew even. Aravane Rezai, who hasn't had the best luck since she cracked the top twenty, continued to struggle -- she dropped a set to Tatjana Malek before winning that rubber and lost in straights to Petkovic on Sunday.

The saving grace for France was instead two former stars -- Julie Coin and one-time world #11 Alize Cornet teamed up for a quick win over the German doubles pair, 6-3, 6-1, to get their country back in the World Group next year.

But probably the closest match in the playoffs came between the Serbs and the Slovaks, two nations with a lot of talent but not a lot of follow-through. Former #1 Jelena Jankovic was missing her partner in crime as Ana Ivanovic lost both of her matches in their World Group first round against Russia. The Indian Wells champ was then left with eighteen-year-old Bojana Jovanovski, ranked #117 in the world.

The Slovaks were led by Daniela Hantuchova, a talented player who never seems to acheive quite as much as she should. The long-time Tour staple has done well this year, making the finals in Monterrey and getting ahead on Venus Williams in Miami before losing the heart-breaking three-setter.

On their opponents' courts, though, Daniela teamed with last year's Warsaw champ Magdalena Rybarikova to set the pace. She notched her second straight win over Jankovic to take the lead, two rubbers to one, and then partnered up to win the deciding doubles match. With the victory, the Slovaks return to the top tier of Fed Cup for the first time since 2004 and make the case for their position among the elite of women's tennis.

There was much less drama in the Ukraine, where visiting Australians swept their opponents. Sam Stosur, fresh off her win in Charleston, led her teammates to an easy win over the likes of Alona Bondarenko. We'll see the Aussies back in the World Group next year.

Sure, I'm ecstatic about the rematch of last year's final between the Americans and the Italians -- and especially how Bethanie Mattek-Sands was able to pull off two victories on Sunday to secure the win for the U.S. But as we've seen, there was plenty of other action to speak of. And if these ladies keep up the same level of play, we're in for a pretty exciting year.

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