Perfect In Prague: Host Czech Republic Takes 2-0 Lead Over U.S. In Fed Cup Final

Barbora Strycova defeated Sofia Kenin (photo: Fernanod Colon)

PRAGUE, November 10, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Playing for one’s country always brings out a lot of emotion during any Fed Cup by BNP Paribas final. The opening ceremonies inside Prague’s O2 Arena Saturday afternoon brought players from both teams to tears, especially when the respective anthems of the United States and the Czech Republic were beautifully performed in their native languages, just before play commenced.

If the first two rubbers are any indication, the 2018 final showdown between the United States and the Czech Republic – the two most successful teams in the history of the Fed Cup – will be decided on the strength of who handles their emotions the best.

After the first day, the host Czech Republic was perfect in Prague, winning both singles rubbers against the United States to gain a commanding 2-0 lead. Both Barbora Strycova and Katerina Siniakova were successful in taking out their respective American opponents, Sofia Kenin and Alison Riske. Strycova came from behind to beat Kenin, 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4, then Siniakova was solid in her win over Riske, 6-3, 7-6 (2). On Sunday, the Czechs need to win just one of the three remaining rubbers to win their sixth Fed Cup final title in the last eight years.

In the first rubber, the Czech Republic’s Strycova wore her emotions on her sleeve. At age 32 and playing in her 20th and final Fed Cup tie, Strycova faced the 19-year-old Kenin, who was playing in her first one. With plenty of experience and an attacking style that kept Kenin off balance, Strycova played solidly throughout much of her two hour and 43 minute opening match against the young American. It was the first time in Strycova’s 16-year Fed Cup career that she came back from a set down to win a rubber.

“It’s funny because it’s her first tie and my last one. For me it was a lot of emotions,” said Strycova during an on-court interview in English after her win. “I was crying in the locker room and I thought (to myself), ‘I should not cry out on the court.’ I let it go because I kept it inside of me. Somehow, I had to let it out. Seeing the crowd, it was amazing.”

It took Strycova just one service game to break her unseasoned opponent and, quickly, the Czech veteran jumped ahead 3-1 in the opening set. However, it was short-lived, as a determined Kenin came back and began to build confidence with a hold and a break of her own to level the set at 3-all. Then, Strycova pushed ahead as she converted a break-point after Kenin missed wide on an overhead smash at the end of a marvelous 11-shot rally. However, Kenin evened the set with another break in the next game, then held serve for a 5-4 lead. Through the ebb and flow of the opening set, Strycova finally settled down and forced a tie-break. Kenin showed why she’s a fantastic competitor as she jumped ahead 5-2, then held on to win it 7-5.

Down but not out, Strycova consolidated an early break to go ahead 3-0 at the beginning of the second set. Later, she broke Kenin to go up 5-1, and won the lopsided set on her racket, 6-1, to send the rubber to a deciding third set.

Then, Strycova broke Kenin at the outset of the final set and held serve by winning points on her returns for a 2-0 lead. Soon after, she took advantage of a huge unforced error on a easy-but-netted return to push ahead 3-1. The momentum favored Strycova. Another break of Kenin’s serve – her sixth – made it 4-1 for the Czech. Then, Kenin was broken for a seventh time thanks to three double faults, which gave Strycova a 5-2 advantage. However, the American wasn’t quite ready to concede as Kenin broke back at love and consolidated the break to keep her hopes alive, trailing 4-5. Finally, Strycova’s experience and her resilience – coupled with using every part of the court – paid off in the end as she won the final set 6-4, and with it, the first rubber went to the Czech Republic.

After she secured match point, Strycova raised her arms in celebration and blew kisses to the enthusiastic, mostly-Czech crowd. Then, she raced over to her bench and received hugs from all of her teammates. A close-up of Strycova’s face showed signs of both happiness and relief. In the end, she got the job done.

“I fought every ball and I’m so happy I could win in front of such a big crowd. It means a lot to me,” said Strycova, who improved her career Fed Cup singles record to 11-7.

In outpointing Kenin, 99-92, Strycova overcame 32 unforced errors (13 of them in the first set) and four service breaks by winning 64 percent (40 of 64) of her first-serve points, and hit 21 winners. She broke her opponent seven times in 12 opportunities. Kenin’s inexperience translated into her committing 32 unforced errors against just 23 winners, and she won only 47 percent (16 of 34) of her second-serve points. Plus, Kenin converted just four of 11 break-point opportunities.

We have a very good team, but without Petra sometimes it’s tough,” said Strycova, in response to World No. 7 Petra Kvitova’s absence from the opening-day lineup due to illness. (Although Kvitova hopes to play Sunday, her status remains unclear.) “Every point in important.”

Indeed, and in a battle of heavy hitters in the second rubber, Siniakova used her energetic and powerful strokes to her advantage against No. 63 Alison Riske, the only American on the United States team with any prior Fed Cup experience. Although Riske won their most recent encounter on the WTA Tour, in Hobart last January, on Saturday it was Siniakova’s turn to triumph.

The No. 31 Siniakova wrapped up a 43-minute first set very nicely with her third of five service aces. Then, at 5-all in the second set, she garnered her fourth break of Riske’s serve in seven opportunities to put the rubber on her racquet. However, Riske came up clutch by ripping a forehand winner down the line to break Siniakova. It set up a tie-break and kept the American’s chances alive – however fleeting. Soon, Siniakova recovered her composure and jumped out to a 5-1 advantage during the tie-break. She finished off Riske 7-2 in the tie-break on her second match-point opportunity to win a valuable second point for her team.

Siniakova finished the tidy one hour and 38 minute rubber with five service aces and hit 19 winners against Riske and outpointed the American 71-64. Her victory put the Czechs in control of the tie, 2-0, going into Sunday’s final day. Now, the Americans will have to win both reverse singles and the doubles rubber to capture this year’s Fed Cup final.

The United States came into the tie 10-2 lifetime against the Czech Republic. Now, the Czechs are one point away from earning their first win against the Americans in 33 years. No team – favorite or underdog – has ever come back from down 0-2 to win the Fed Cup final. The defending champion U.S. team, which is going after its 19th career Fed Cup trophy – but without much experience and nobody named Serena Williams to rely upon – will have that to think about tonight in Prague.

Fed Cup notes

• On Friday, Petra Kvitova received the final Fed Cup Heart Award for a second time after a fan vote following her 2018 semifinal performance against Germany, in which she compiled a pair of straight-set wins over Julia Goerges and Angelique Kerber. Her back-to-back wins in the Czech Republic’s 4-1 victory over Germany in the semifinal round was voted the performance of the round.

Kvitova received a $10,000 check, which she is donating to the Institute of Hand Surgery and Plastic Surgery in Vysoke nad Jizerou, the hospital that performed career-saving surgery on her left hand following a knife attack inside her home in 2016.

“I’m excited to have won the Heart Award,” Kvitova was quoted as saying by the Fed Cup website. “It’s a big honor for me to win it. I won it once before, in 2011, and it’s a beautiful award – it’s awarded by the fans, which is something very special. The fans are the best, and we are playing for them as well. It’s something very special to be voted by them.”

Others who were nominated for the latest Fed Cup Heart Award were Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic and Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, both of the United States.

The Fed Cup Heart Award is an ITF initiative which “aims to recognize players who have representated their country with distinction, shown exceptional courage on court and demonstrated outstanding commitment to their team.”

• Among those who were spotted inside the sold-out O2 Arena crowd Saturday were a pair of former Czech tennis greats, Jan Kodes and Helena Sukova. Kodes won three Grand Slam titles in the early ‘70s, and Sukova won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles and was part of four Czech Republic Fed Cup titles.

• On Saturday, former Top 10 Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic, a longtime member of the Czech Fed Cup team and three-time Olympian, announced her retirement following the 2019 Australian Open.

• Play resumes Sunday at noon local time (11 a.m. GMT; 8 a.m. ET) with the reverse singles in Rubbers 3 and 4, followed by the doubles rubber.

Sunday’s schedule:
Rubber 3 – Katerina Siniakova vs. Sofia Kenin
Rubber 4 – Barbora Strycova vs. Alison Riske
Rubber 5 – Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova vs. Danielle Collins/Nicole Melichar.

Note, team captains may change their lineup nominations up to one hour prior to the start of those matches. Also, a revised Sunday schedule may take place if either team clinches in the third or fourth rubber.