February 8, 2015

The Clinchers: Fed Cup First Round

It's not just the men who had something to atone for in the days after the Australian Open. This weekend a couple ladies who may have fallen a little short of expectations in Melbourne -- either their own or others' -- stormed back onto the courts for the first round of Fed Cup action. And a few of their wins may have gone a long way to make up for their recent losses.

Germany vs. Australia

There was plenty of talent on display at the tie between Germany and Australia, but most these players got off to a slow start in 2015 -- together the four singles entrants had combined for just two wins Down Under. But they were all hungry for redemption this weekend -- Jarmila Gajdosova, who scored her first ever win at her homeland's Major last month, opened by stunning heavy favorite Angelique Kerber in three sets, but Andrea Petkovic, winless since taking the trophy in Sofia late last year, endured a marathon third set against former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, closing out the win after more than three hours of play. She proved the more resilient on Sunday, too -- after Kerber gave the Germans a slight lead in the first reverse singles match, beating Stosur in straight sets, Petkovic went the distance again, edging Jarkka 8-6 in the third, and securing her country a return to the semis. Last year's runners-up haven't won a Fed Cup trophy since 1992, and while there's a lot more play left before a champion is decided, this group of ladies has certainly shown they have the will to put up some big numbers for their team.

Czech Republic vs. Canada

The Czechs, on the other hand, have had a little more success of late, winning the title three of the last four years. But without some of their biggest stars -- both defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova and underappreciated Lucie Safarova sat out this contest -- there was no certainty in this rubber. But the Canadians were missing their biggest star too, and without Genie Bouchard, their top player was world #185 Gabriela Dabrowski. But the twenty year old proved no match for Karolina Pliskova on Sunday -- the rising star, one of my dark horses for Melbourne, fell surprisingly quickly to eventual Aussie semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova in the third round. But she made up for it this weekend, first trumping eighteen-year-old Francoise Abanda on Saturday and then clinching the win for her country with a straight set win over Dabrowski. The Czechs may not have brought their A-team to this rubber, but with a field as deep as theirs it doesn't seem to matter.

Italy vs. France

Things were a little closer between the 2013 champion Italians and the upstart French team, who made the World Group this year after a playoff win over the U.S. last spring. The favorites got off to a good start on Day One with former Roland Garros finalist Sara Errani bouncing back from a third round upset at the Open to Yanina Wickmayer for a win in the first tie and Camila Giorgi, who fell just short of a monstrous win over Venus Williams, pulled off her own victory over world #19 Alizé Cornet. But the 2-0 lead did not prove insurmountable -- on Sunday, doubles specialist Kristina Mladenovic, who's had some huge wins at the Majors herself, kept the Frenchwomen alive with a win over Errani and young gun Caroline Garcia drew her country even with a three-set win over Giorgi. The two then paired up against the top-ranked doubles team of Errani and long-time partner Roberta Vinci, stunning the Italians for the come-from-behind win. Neither had been able to follow up defeats of low seeds in Melbourne, but their wins this weekend may have shown they still have a lot more to give.

Russia vs. Poland

But perhaps the one player who was most anxious to get back on the court was the one who fell just short of taking the title Down Under. Maria Sharapova made it all the way back to the final at the Australian Open, but despite her best efforts just couldn't get the upper hand against Serena Williams during their nearly two-hour match. But she got right back out there this weekend, playing on the Fed Cup team for only the third time in her decorated career. She kicked off win a quick and easy win over Urszula Radwanska, but even with a 2-0 lead over the Poles, the pressure was on Sunday. Maria faced off against long-time rival Aga Radwanska, a woman who had notched her first ever victory over Serena already this year, and should have been eager to add another high-profile win to her resumé. But Sharapova was undaunted, rolling through the first set and staying the more focused in a tight second. The victory clinched a return to the World Group semis, where the Russians will face off against Germany in April. But more importantly, it erases the bad taste of Maria's loss just a week ago and may have replaced it with a hunger for even bigger wins down the road.

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