By Charles David Mathieu-Poulin
(April 19, 2014) QUEBEC CITY – It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t always pretty, but Canada managed to take a commanding 2-0 lead against the Slovakian squad on the first day of their World Group Playoff tie in Quebec City. While Aleksandra Wozniak had to throw everything but the kitchen sink at young Jana Cepelova in order to get the first point, Eugenie Bouchard probably made Brad Gilbert proud with a textbook example of ‘winning ugly’ in the second match against an inspired Kucova.
On paper, the Wozniak-Cepelova match was the most intriguing: the Canadian is a seasoned Fed Cup competitor with almost 50 matches under her belt, while Cepelova is an up-an-coming star who was still on a high after her dream Charleston run a few weeks ago when she beat Serena Williams en route to losing in the final to Andrea Petkovic. While the ranking gap between both highly favored the Slovakian, the Canadian is coming back from a series of serious injuries, went as high as 21st in the world and thus couldn’t be counted out.
The first set saw both players exchange a large number of breaks, but it was Cepelova who took the early lead, as Wozniak seemed tentative and struggling to find her usual aggressive game. On the other hand, the young Slovak was controlling points with her heavy forehand and kept Wozniak on her toes with a few of her infamous dropshots. While the Canadian started finding her form, it was too little too late as Cepelova broke at 5-4 despite Wozniak having two game points: it was the seventh break of the set.
The first half of the second set followed the same pattern, as Wozniak’s level dropped early and Cepelova kept the pressure on the Canadian’s serve. Down 6-4 5-2, the crowd didn’t have much hope for their home player, but better serving, lower unforced errors, better strategy (everything on the backhand) and a few tight games from Cepelova, who was two points away from the match at both 5-3 and 5-4, helped Wozniak level things off at 5-all. Playing more aggressively, being less tentative and serving much better, the Canadian won the last two games comfortably to force a third.
Oddly enough, the same scenario was repeated in the third set, as Cepelova, who was clearly the most consistent aggressor of the two, took another early lead, only to see Wozniak get back at 3-all. That’s when the match reached its peak, as both players started playing their best tennis and had numerous long, entertaining and varied rallies. Cepelova’s fighting spirit got her through the next two tight games, as she gave herself a second chance to serve out the match…only to get broken again. Serving to stay in the match, Wozniak unleashed a super down-the-line forehand winner to get out of a close game, which resulted in a standing ovation from the crowd of about 2000. Unphased, Cepelova got to a quick 40-0 lead in her next service game, only to see Wozniak reel off 5 straight points, then serve out the match quite easily for a hard-found 4-6 7-5 7-5 win. It was Wozniak’s 39th Fed Cup singles win, and probably the most dramatic of them all. After all she went through in the past few months, Wozniack seemed quite emotional in the on-court interview, as she held back tears of joy.
After such a dramatic match, the crowd expect a walk in the park for Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, Canada’s top ranked player. While she was ranked more than 100 places higher than her opponent Kucova, it seemed like the roles were reversed at the start. Indeed, the Slovak came out firing with her two-handed shots on both sides, attacking early, hitting deep and flat, taking Genie off guard. The Canadian, on the other hand, looked flat and a bit snappy and struggled to keep the ball in play, getting rapidly in a 0-3 hole. While she managed to steady the ship and get back to 3-all, the Slovak kept her cool, followed her game plan and soon got to set point on Bouchard’s serve at 5-3. That’s when Bouchard decided to raise her level, saving a total of four set points in that game and then breaking to level things off at 5-5. After two holds, the set reached a tiebreak and despite coming from behind all set long, Bouchard managed to reel seven straight points by cleaning up her game and raising the aggression level.
After getting so close and failing to close out the set, one could have expected Kucova, ranked outside the top 100, to give up early in the second. But this would be underestimating the Slovak, who started playing lights out tennis and hitting numerous winners out of everywhere in the court, both as an attacker and when defending. On the other hand, Bouchard was average at best, and never managed to get a grip on a set that rapidly, and surprisingly, went the way of Slovak Republic on a score of 6-2.
The crowd was getting used to changes in momentum, as there were plenty all day, and the start of the third set saw yet another one. Bouchard, who seemed to find better form, took an early 2-0 lead, and even had chances for a double break for 3-0. But Kucova, who gained quite a few fans in the stands today as she showed a tremendous amount of heart, kept on fighting and getting to balls that seemed impossible to reach, and managed to hold for 1-2. That’s when her body started struggling, as she started to stretch between points and seemed to be out of breath. It didn’t take much more for Genie to smell blood and move her around, and while she was playing arguably better than Bouchard for most of the match, Kucova just couldn’t keep up with such a level after over two hours. The Canadian won the last four games, and the match, to give Canada a 2-0 lead.
This match was a great example of a superior player who is struggling against an opponent playing lights-out tennis, but who manages to find a way to win. And while she was clearly frustrated with her level after the match, the situation was well summarized by Sylvain Bureau, Canada’s captain: ”No matter how we did it, in the end, we finish the day leading 2-0. All we need tomorrow is to win one match and we will focus on that”.
Charles David Mathieu-Poulin blogs for WtaQuebec www.wtaquebec.com, a website promoting local Quebec players. He is covering the Fed Cup in Quebec City for Tennis Panorama News. Follow him on twitter @earthstroke, follow his coverage on @TennnisNewsTPN.