Irina-Camelia Begu gave Romania a 2-0 lead on the first day of its World Group II Fed Cup by BNP Paribas tie with Canada by overcoming a brave challenge by Bianca Andreescu, winning 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-2. The opening match at the sold-out, 9,000-seat Sala Polivalenta arena in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, went to Sorana Cirstea who defeated Carol Zhao 6-2, 6-2.
At the end of the two-hour-and-38 minute, highly-competitive second match, Begu (above) was greeted by teammates, including Simona Halep who is sitting out this weekend as she recovers from a left ankle sprain suffered at the Australian Open last month.
At the same moment just a few feet away seated in her courtside chair beside Canadian captain Sylvain Bruneau, the 17-year-old Andreescu shed a tear or two after a gutsy effort against a far more experienced player. Begu, 27 and ranked no. 37, was making her 14th Fed Cup appearance while for Andreescu it was no. 3 after the zonal round in Metepec, Mexico, last February and then a tie against Kazakhstan in Montreal in April when she contributed a singles win over no. 51-ranked Yaroslava Shvedova in a 3-1 Canadian victory to earn a World Group II spot.
While the match Saturday was of a high quality with the players using their power off the ground to try to dominate, both made elementary mistakes that allowed their opponent to gain the advantage in the first two sets.
Serving to tie the opening set at 4-4, Andreescu had a game point but missed a forehand swing volley on top of the net into the net with an open court in front of her. Begu would break serve four points later and then serve out the 40-minute first set.
Andreescu fell behind 3-1 in the second set but came back to level matters at 3-all with a big inside/out forehand winner that was called out but proved to be on the line after a successful Hawk-Eye challenge.
Both players held serve to force a tiebreak and this time it was Begu who faltered, missing a forehand into the net when she was in control of the point to give Andreescu a 6-4 (two set points) lead. A nervy Begu proceeded to double fault wide to lose the tiebreak and the set and then immediately departed the court for a comfort break.
When she returned Andreescu was being treated for a blister on her left big toe.
Whether or not it affected her when play resumed, she was unable to maintain her level from the second set, losing 13 of the first 15 points to fall behind 3-0, one service break. Begu had regained her composure and took control, breaking serve in the final game against an Andreescu who had almost double her opponent’s unforced errors (11-6) in the final set.
“The match today was a battle and I wouldn’t say I played badly,” Andreescu said post-match, not mentioning anything about the big toe blister. “I fought. I gave all I had and she did the same. She played the important points better.”
Regarding the third set, she said about Andreescu, “I think she had more energy than I did, especially in the end.”
Andreescu was playing in the homeland of her Romanian parents and said about the experience of the match, “it’s nice, I love it – these are the moments I live for. It was very special. It’s not in Canada, it’s way different. We’re in Romania. The crowd was crazy for her and you guys (the Canadians contingent) supported me well and I’m very grateful for that.”
Andreescu is back on her game after looking unlike herself when she lost 6-1, 6-1 to another Romanian, no. 190-ranked Alexandra Dulgheru, in the first round of the qualifying at the Australian Open last month. At no. 173, she showed that she can trade shot for shot with a seasoned pro and heavy hitter like Begu. It’s an encouraging sign and will help her if the tie can be extended to a fourth match after Zhao takes on Begu in the first match on Sunday (5 a.m. ET in Canada).
In the opening match Saturday, Romanian No. 2 Sorana Cirstea needed just 54 minutes to defeat Zhao.
It was always going to be a tough match-up for the no. 138 Zhao against a player exactly 100 spots higher than her in the WTA rankings.
She had chances in the opening set when she had love-30 leads on the Cirstea serve at 2-all and then again at 4-2 for the 27-year-old Romanian. But once those chances went by the wayside, Cirstea was able to execute her bigger game and Zhao became more error-prone, losing seven games in a row to trail 3-0 in the second set.
It was hard for Zhao to find openings with Cirstea consistently hitting more winners – 16 to five overall – and winding up with a total points advantage of 56 to 29.
Cirstea has ranked as high as no. 21 in 2013, right after she reached the final of the Rogers Cup in Toronto with a career week – beating no. 10 Caroline Wozniacki, no. 7 Petra Kvitova and no. 5 Li Na before losing in the final to No. 1 Serena Williams.
She had shoulder problems in 2016 but raised her ranking from no. 81 to no. 37 last year.
As for the 22-year-old Zhao, she was playing in her first Fed Cup singles match against a more experienced opponent who was contesting her 28th Fed Cup singles contest and now has a record of 16-12.
“She played a very solid match,” Zhao (above with captain Bruneau) said about Cirstea. “I wasn’t able to win a couple of the key points in the first set that would have kept me in it.”
In Sunday’s opening singles Zhao, as Canada’s no. 1 player, will face Romanian no. 1 Begu.
Much has been made of the fact that world no. 2 and Australian Open finalist Simona Halep is not playing for Romania. In a sense things are even worse for Canada because both of its top players – no. 116 Genie Bouchard and no. 123 Francoise Abanda – declined the invitation to play.
Bouchard is scheduled to play an exhibition match Sunday night at the inaugural (ATP 250) New York Open at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island. Joining her on court will be US Open champion Sloane Stephens as well as John McEnroe and James Blake.
OTHER CANADIANS THIS WEEKEND
Vasek Pospisil advanced to his second Challenger final in a row – after winning in Rennes, France, two weeks ago – by beating no. 182-ranked Nikola Milojevic of Serbia 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 in the semifinals of the 64,000 euro ($98,646 Can) Hungarian Challenger Open in Budapest on Saturday.
Pospisil was broken to 2-3 in the third set and lost the next two points to 30-love on the Milojevic serve. He looked pretty tired and briefly actually sat down on the court for a few seconds before getting up… and eventually broke serve to get back to 3-all.
In the final game he converted his second match point with a well-angled backhand volley winner.
In Sunday’s final he will face No. 237-ranked Nikola Kuhn. An Austrian-born Spaniard, Kuhn reached the final with a 6-3, 7-6(5) victory over Hungarian Marton Fucsovics, who lost to Roger Federer in the fourth round of the Australian Open last month.
Kuhn is also in the doubles with his fellow 17-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime. In the semifinals following the Pospisil-Milojevic match, they take on Hungarians Levente Godry and Peter Nagy.
Unfortunately because he was in the final of the San Francisco Challenger exactly a year ago, Pospisil can’t improve his current no.85 ranking very much – win or lose he will remain somewhere in the mid-80s.
In Antalya Turkey, Rebecca Marino continues her charmed run after defeating no. 637-ranked Melis Sezer of Turkey 6-1, 6-1 to reach the final of a $15,000 ITF futures tournament. It’s the 27-year-old Vancouverite’s second ITF event in a row in Antalya and she now has 11 consecutive wins. In Sunday’s final she will face Nina Stadler of Switzerland. The 22-year-old Swiss is ranked no. 755.
FED CUP FUN
Swiss Fed Cup captain Heinz Gunthardt, in the spirit of the 2018 Olympic Winter games in Korea, played a type of charades with his team – watch HERE:
— Fed Cup (@FedCup) February 7, 2018
The two most recognizable players are Belinda Bencic, closest to the camera, and Timea Bacsinszky, third from the camera.
After day one versus the Czech Republic in Prague, the Swiss team trails its World Group I opening round 2-0 after Petra Kvitova defeated Viktorija Golubic 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 and Barbora Strycova beat Bencic 6-2, 6-4.
Feature photo by: Kyle Clapham/Tennis Canada