After his Czech team won the two opening singles matches of the Fed Cup World Group play-off on Saturday, captain Petr Pala talked about his players feeling the pressure of being strong favourites.
But things turned out okay for Pala and his team as Karolina Muchova defeated Rebecca Marino 6-3, 6-0 and Marketa Vondrousova beat Leylah Annie Fernandez 6-4, 6-1 to give the home side a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five match tie in Prostejov.
“I’m very pleased with the way the players performed because there’s big pressure playing at home, especially for Karolina playing (Fed Cup) for the first time,” Pala said. “We’re the favourite on paper and it’s live on TV here in Czech.”
It was a rowdy crowd in Agrofert Arena. “I don’t think she’s ever played in such a noisy atmosphere,” Pala said about Muchova. “In the small arena (1,200 spectators) it’s more (noisy). I hardly could hear her talking on the bench.”
Both matches were competitive at the outset as Marino leveled matters at 3-all after trailing 3-1in the first set against Muchova, and Fernandez rallied from a 4-1 deficit to 4-3 in the opener against Vondrousova in a match-up of left-handers.
As well as Muchova and Vondrousova played, probably the main take-away from the day was 16-year-old Fernandez in her Fed Cup debut – the youngest player at 16 years, seven months and 15 days to ever play in a World Group play-off.
“I was actually surprised at Leylah,” Pala said. “The way she handled the match and the way she played. She played some shots better than I was expecting, standing close to the baseline and managing to control the shots, which is not that easy on clay.”
It was remarkable how the no. 376-ranked Fernandez was able to stay in so many longer rallies with the no. 47 Vondrousova, who made the quarter-finals of both Indian Wells and Miami last month as well as reaching the WTA final in Budapest in February.
In terms of experience, the 19-year-old Vondrousova is listed on the WTA website as having a career match record of 141-51 while Fernandez’s is a mere 11-4 – with her only win at the WTA tour level being a 6-3, 7-5 victory over no. 542-ranked compatriot Gabriela Dabrowski in Quebec City last September.
“It was inspiring seeing her out there,” Canadian captain Heidi El Tabakh said about Fernandez. “I was impressed with her attitude, her fighting spirit. She didn’t seem nervous. She didn’t seem like she was intimidated and I could tell even on the bench that she wanted it so badly. Her level of play was unbelievable. For her first Fed Cup at 16 years old I thought that was super impressive.”
As for Vondrousova, now 2-1 in Fed Cup singles, she said about her young opponent: “I only knew that she played the (junior) final of the Aussie Open. She played a great match. We had a couple of great rallies and I think she played really well with nothing to lose.”
Fernandez actually had more ground stroke winners than Vondrousova – 10-8 – for the match but that probably doesn’t account for her forced errors because of her older opponent’s superior power.
If there was a moment when Fernandez showed her true grit it was after her second serve was called out on Vondrousova’s first match point. The mark was checked, the double fault erased and the point replayed. The two players then had a monster baseline exchange of more than 30 stokes and it was obvious Fernandez, despite trailing 5-1 in the set, was desperately determined not to lose it. And she didn’t – finishing the scintillating rally with a bold cross-court forehand winner.
“I went out and fought for every point and gave it everything I had,” Fernandez said after the match. “I feel like I am able to compete with these types of players on tour. I’m taking a lot from this first Fed Cup match.
“Honestly, I was a little bit nervous when the match began. But I like to take the nerves and the pressure and use them as motivation to push forward.”
The spectators in the arena at the National Tennis Centre were loud – and occasionally made sounds that encroached on the server’s motion. But it wasn’t that unusual for Fed Cup. “It was the noisiest crowd,” Fernandez said relating it to her past experiences. “But I love the noise. I loved the energy from the crowd, whether they were cheering for me or against me. I like to use it as a positive.”
Despite her loss, the 28-year-old Marino still found a certain satisfaction after the match – playing singles in Fed Cup for the first time since Canada visited Koper, Slovenia, in 2011.
“It’s been eight years since my last singles tie so I’m really excited that I had a chance to do that again,” she said. “First and foremost I’m disappointed to lose the match but I’m really proud of myself to get here in the first place.”
There was some heavy-duty hitting from the baseline in the opening set as Marino rallied from that 3-1 deficit. The match then swung when she failed to hold serve, after two deuces, in the game at 3-3.
“The first set I think both of us were a little nervous at the beginning,” Marino said. “Fed Cup is different because you have the crowd that’s really noisy and you feel like there’s a lot more on the line. We had a lot of close games through the first set. I felt it was high quality once we both got into it.”
Regarding the second set, she added: “Once you win the first set it gives you confidence and momentum and she’s a really talented player. I felt she really stepped it up. “
Summing up, Marino, currently ranked no. 184, said about the no. 106-ranked Muchova: “It’s good that I can go neck and neck with an up-and-coming player like that.”
Probably the key stat for the 22-year-old Czech was that she won 65 per cent of first serve points to just 44 per cent for Marino, who was broken seven times on the indoor clay-court surface. “I was ready for her serve which is a big weapon,” Muchova said about Marino. “I just moved like two steps behind the baseline and it was then pretty comfortable for me. From the start she had a few points when I just watched the winners go by fast but then I got into my game and she made a few mistakes so she helped me.”
In Sunday reverse singles, it will be Canadian no. 1 Marino vs. Czech no. 1 Vondrousova to be followed by Canadian no. 2 Fernandez vs. Czech no. 2 Muchova. The matches start at noon in Prostejov (6 a.m. ET in Canada).
Should a fifth and deciding doubles match be required, Gabriela Dabrowski and Sharon Fichman have been named as the Canadian pair to face Marie Bouzkova and Barbora Krejcikova for the Czechs.
This weekend’s World Group play-off is not the easiest assignment for captain El Tabakh without the two players – Bianca Andreescu and Francoise Abanda – who led Canada to victory in the first round in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, in February. “It was a tough day, the Czech girls were better,” El Tabakh said about the result of the opening singles. “I think both girls gave 100 per cent and they battled. I’m proud of their efforts.”
Denis Shapovalov, no. 15, and Félix Auger-Aliassime, no. 16, are seeded at this week’s ATP 500 event in Barcelona. Both get first-round byes – then Shapovalov would play either no. 40-ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber or no. 71 Malek Jaziri – with (4) Kei Nishikori as a possible third-round opponent.
As for Auger-Aliassime, he will face either no. 47 Christian Garin or no. 50 Martin Klizan in the second round with (8) Fabio Fognini potentially waiting in the third round.
TEAM PHOTO EXTRAORDINAIRE
The Spanish Fed Cup team is at 1-1 after its first day of competition in Kortrijk, Belgium. No. 1 Garbine Muguruza lost while no. 2 Carla Suarez Navarro won.
Here’s a team picture from before the tie – left to right: Garbine Muguruza, 25, Maria Jose Sanchez Martinez, 36, Aliona Bolsova Zadoinov, 21, (captain) Anabel Medina Garrigues, 36, (6-foot-1) Georgina Garcia-Perez, 26, and Carla Suarez Navarro, 30.