Over the past weekend, the Czech Republic claimed the Fed Cup again, defending their hard earned 2014 team championship, defeating a formidable Russian contingent led by none other than Maria Sharapova. The redoubtable Sharapova nearly led her nation to victory in Prague on the indoor hard courts. The dynamic 28-year-old pulled off a pair of singles triumphs, and did everything in her power to propel Russia across the finish line. In the end, however, the better balanced Czech Republic team deservedly achieved a 3-2 final round win over Russia. The series was locked at 2-2, and it all came down to the lone doubles contest. Karolina Pliskova joined forces with Barbara Strycova, and they valiantly rallied for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 triumph over Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
But let’s look at what happened across a fascinating two days in sequence. Kvitova—ranked sixth in the world and a Fed Cup stalwart—opened the proceedings against a resolute Pavlyuchenkova, and before she had time to find her range or get her bearings, Kvitova was in a significant bind. Pavlyuchenkova was picking her apart, defending ably, and serving surprisingly well. Kvitova, meanwhile, was in disarray, spraying balls wildly out of court, pressing repeatedly, and self-destructing as she failed to find any rhythm. Kvitova commenced the battle well enough, holding serve right off the bat. But she lost the next five games somewhat haphazardly. Pavlyuchenkova took that set 6-2, closing it out with authority in the eighth game, serving an ace for 15-15, following with an unreturnable delivery, taking the next point for 40-15, and then approaching behind a strong forehand to set up an impressive backhand volley winner.
But Kvitova kept her poise, and broke for a 2-0 second set lead after four deuces. She had held from 0-40 in the opening game. That critical two game swing both bolstered Kvitova and deflated her adversary. Kvitova held at love for 3-0 and never looked back, taking the set 6-1 with a flourish, including an ace out wide in the ad court on set point. The enigmatic left-hander was rolling now. She broke Pavlyuchenkova in the opening game of the final set on a tame double fault from the Russian. The rest was essentially a formality. Kvitova was unstoppable from the backcourt, returning with growing assurance, and serving with impressive power and precision. She stormed to a 2-6, 6-1, 6-1 win, giving the Czech Republic a 1-0 lead.
And so it was up to Sharapova to keep the Russians from falling precipitously behind. She did just that against the enterprising Pliskova. Sharapova and Pliskova traded service breaks in the sixth and seventh games of the opening set. But the Russian No. 1 resumed her command from the baseline, sent some typically scorching returns back across the net, broke for 5-3 and held easily for the set.
Briefly yet unconvincingly, Pliskova took a 2-0 second set lead. But the turning point of the contest was in the third game. Sharapova angled a blazing backhand return winner crosscourt to break back, held on swiftly for 2-2 at the cost of only one point, and then unleashed a barrage of scorching shots to break again for 3-2. Sharapova moved to 4-2 with a strong hold of serve. With Pliskova serving to stay in the match at 3-5, the host nation’s No. 2 singles player double faulted to trail 15-40, but soon swept four points in a row. Unperturbed, focused solely on sealing the victory, bearing down with her customary purpose and intensity, Sharapova held at 15 to complete a commendable 6-3, 6-4 win. It was 1-1.
A day later, the players returned to the arena for the last three matches. The Sunday program opened with the eagerly anticipated encounter between two-time major titlist Kvitova and career Grand Slammer Sharapova. Although Sharapova held a 6-4 advantage in their career head to head series, she had just lost to Kvitova in the semifinals at Singapore in the semifinals of the season ending BNP Paribas WTA Finals. Sharapova had not completed a singles match since Wimbledon before she competed and carved out three match victories in Singapore, but her shortage of match play caught up with her against Kvitova in that penultimate round Singapore clash; the southpaw recouped from 1-5 down in the second set to topple her old rival in straight sets.
This time around in Prague, Sharapova was largely at Kvitova’s mercy all across a crackling opening set. Kvitova broke in the opening game, employing a neatly executed forehand drop volley to draw Sharapova forward, then punching a forehand volley for a winner past her vulnerable opponent. Kvitova moved swiftly to 2-0 with an easy service game. On her way to 5-3, Kvitova took 16 of 20 points on her delivery, controlling the tempo consistently, keeping Sharapova at bay, performing with a sweepingly beautiful array of potent shots. Serving to stay in a set that was spinning out of control, Sharapova was broken at love in the ninth game. Kvitova had taken the set comprehensively 6-3. She was the decidedly better player and her backcourt game was so heavy and unrelenting that there was little Sharapova could do to combat her.
In the second game of the second set, an unwavering yet still seemingly outclassed Sharapova saved four break points to reach 1-1. The set stayed on serve until Sharapova made her move in the fifth game. At break point down, Kvitova sent a wayward forehand approach well beyond the baseline. Sharapova was up 3-2, but was broken at love for 3-3 on an errant forehand drop shot into the net. The seventh game went to deuce four times. Kvitova saved two break points. She held on sedulously for 4-3, and then had a break point of her own in the following game. With Kvitova one point away from serving for the match, Sharapova refused to blink, sending an accurate and penetrating first serve down the T to elicit a backhand return error from Kvitova. Sharapova collected the next two points, holding on admirably for 4-4.
In the ninth game, Kvitova served consecutive double faults from 40-15, and then Sharapova came through with two magnificent backhand returns in a row to break for 5-4. She held commandingly at love in the following game, claiming the set almost defiantly 6-4, sensing that this match was moving permanently in her direction.
Kvitova remained determined to succeed. She forged ahead 2-1 in the final set with an ace down the T, but that obstinate stand would not lead her where she wanted to go. Sharapova swept five consecutive games to run out a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 win. In that stretch, the victor collected 20 of the last 25 points. Her court positioning was exemplary. Sharapova hugged the baseline, ceded no ground, and gradually stamped her authority on the match. She fended off some extraordinarily big hitting from Kvitova and coaxed some crucial mistakes in the process. Moreover, Sharapova found the openings to conduct the rallies more on her own terms, and her first serve was a primary strength in the final set of a rousing showdown. Sharapova displayed all of her finest qualities as a competitor in that contest, making crucial adjustments after the first set, raising the level of her game immensely, breaking down Kvitova with a telling blend of offense and defense. Her comeback was a first class piece of business.
That victory gave Russia 2-1 lead. And now it was up to Pliskova to keep the Czech Republic alive. It was her turn to take on Pavlyuchenkova. Pliskova had finished the year at No. 11 in the world while her adversary stood at a respectable yet distant No. 28. Pliskova is a better ball striker, a superior match player, and, on top of that, she had the luxury of competing in front of a home crowd. All of those factors contributed to success in this instance for the Czech Republic. Pliskova took a hard fought first set 6-3, and then came from 3-4 down in the second set to secure three games in a row to bring her nation back to 2-2 in the Fed Cup Final. That was no mean feat. One of the chief reasons why she prevailed was that Pliskova backed up her first serve much better than Pavlyuchenkova, a player with a delivery that tends to collapse under pressure. Pliskova won 81% of her first serve points, while Pavlyuchenkova stood at only 61% in that category.
Now the two nations were locked at 2-2. Pliskova had hardly any time to celebrate her singles victory before joining forces with Barbara Strycova in the doubles. They confronted Pavlyuchenkova and the exuberant Elena Vesnina. The Czech Republic team dropped the first set but thereafter they were predominantly in control. With Pliskova displaying the consistency and soundness that was essential to her nation’s cause, and Strycova improving markedly after the opening set, they took apart the Russians 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Arguably, Vesnina was the best and certainly the most accomplished doubles player on the court. She is the No. 8 ranked doubles player in the world. But Pavlyuchenkova was too often a liability when the chips were on the line.
Ultimately, the better team was victorious. And so, despite Sharapova’s twin triumphs for Russia, the Czech Republic came through, with Pliskova shining brightly on the last day with a singles win followed by success in the doubles. Kvitova had done her part as well by winning her first match. Meanwhile, Lucie Safarova—the French Open finalist and the No. 9 ranked woman player in the world, did not play in the doubles as many expected she would. She had not been ready for the singles either.
Next year, with Kvitova still among the sport’s premier players and Safarova a growing threat in the upper regions of the sport, it is entirely possible that the Czech Republic will stay right where they are as the champion nation in the world of women’s tennis. Their demonstrable capacity to thrive in the challenging atmosphere of Fed Cup competition will keep them right in the thick of the battle for supremacy as long as they stay healthy, motivated and highly charged.