Steve Flink: Czech Republic Keeps Hold on Fed Cup

As the leading women from France and the Czech Republic gathered at Strasbourg for the Fed Cup Final in a festive indoor atmosphere, it was apparent to all tennis authorities that both nations could realistically expect to capture the prestigious international team championship. As the host country, France had a large dose of sentiment on their side; conversely, the Czech Republic boasted a formidable lineup which included the sixth ranked woman in the world, supported by a remarkably capable supporting cast. For those of us who followed this Fed Cup final with special interest, it always seemed certain to hold our full attention from beginning to end.

That is precisely what happened. In the end, the visiting team demonstrated their supremacy in no uncertain fashion, but, predictably, it went down to the wire before the Czech Republic came through 3-2 to secure their third Fed Cup team title in a row and their fifth in an impressive six year span. Through it all, across a stirring weekend, the player who carried her nation across the finish line was none other than Karolina Pliskova, the aforementioned world No. 6. She would split her two singles contests before playing a crucial role in winning the last doubles encounter. At the end of a long season, after a period of considerable growth and an appearance in her first major final, despite being debilitated by so much hard work, Pliskova was commendably disciplined and determined.

But let's review a gripping weekend chronologically. The opening act was a stirring clash between Pliskova and Kristina Mladenovic, a 23-year-old ranked 42nd in the world. One might have believed Mladenovic would be intimidated by the responsibility of taking on the U.S. Open finalist in such a daunting setting, but she acquitted herself honorably. Pliskova forged an early 3-1 lead before Mladenovic fought back tenaciously to 3-3. But Pliskova regained the initiative in the seventh game, breaking serve again with a winning backhand down the line return off a weak second serve kicker. Pliskova—the 2016 WTA Tour leader in aces because her delivery is singularly deceptive and deadly accurate—held at 15 with an ace for 5-3 and broke her adversary again to seal the set as Mladenovic double faulted the ninth game away.

The second set was locked at 3-3 but Pliskova double faulted into the net at break point down in the seventh game. The favorite got the break right back for 4-4, but soon found herself in uncomfortable territory again. She dropped serve once more, this time with an unforced error off the forehand. A buoyant Mladenovic served out the set energetically in the tenth game to make it one set all.

The plot thickened in almost unimaginable ways over the course of a riveting final set. From 2-2, Pliskova collected three games in a row at the cost of only five points, surging to 5-2 in the process. Mladenovic served to stay in the battle in the eighth game, barely holding on from deuce. Pliskova served for the match at 5-3 but was thwarted by the determined Frenchwoman, who delighted the home crowd with a forehand winner down the line that allowed her to break back. Two points from defeat in the following game, serving at 30-30, Mladenovic released successive first deliveries that were unstoppable. Improbably, she had climbed back to 5-5 on the basis of a spectacular three game run.

Mladenovic was hurting, hampered by an ailing leg. But she battled her way out of a 0-30 deficit at 5-6, winning four points in a row, holding for 6-6 with an ace down the T. Neither player was unduly troubled on serve until Mladenovic was pushed to the brink of defeat again at 8-9, 15-40, down double match point. But her response was outstanding. An excellent sliced service out wide in the deuce court erased one match point and an ace down the T took canceled the second. She held on for 9-9. Both players protected themselves ably on serve until the 23rd game. Behind 15-40, Pliskova drove a two-hander long.

And so Mladenovic served for the match at 12-11, but here she simply could not see herself clear to victory. Her vision was cluttered by the enormity of the task at hand. Pliskova realized she did not need to be ultra aggressive at this time, and wisely kept as many balls in play as possible, realizing her opponent might self destruct. Pliskova broke at 15 for 12-12. In the following game, she saved a break point and eventually held on with an ace. Mladenovic was unwavering, holding from 30-30 for 13-13. Both women held to make it 14-14. The steadfastness of these two players down the stretch was extraordinary.

Yet only one of them knew how to navigate the ultimate path to victory. Pliskova held for 15-14 at 30 with a winning overhead taken on the bounce, and Mladenovic was absolutely spent. Pliskova broke at love on a stream of errors from a beleaguered adversary. The 24-year-old broke at love to complete a 6-3, 4-6, 16-14 triumph in three hours and 47 minutes. It was a win well earned, a battle hard fought, and a wonderful way to start the proceedings. Pliskova had put her country deservedly out in front, 1-0.

The stage was set for the dynamic left-hander Petra Kvitova to meet world No, 23 Caroline Garcia, a sprightly competitor if ever there was one.

Kvitova, the world No. 11, was the clear favorite. But she recognized the size of the challenge she faced. Garcia is a free-wheeling competitor, a brilliant shotmaker with a large imagination, and a woman who relished the opportunity to keep her country very much in the hunt. The opening set was exceedingly well played by both competitors, concluding fittingly in a tie-break. Kvitova served at 5-6 with a set point against her, but saved it with an excellent body serve to the backhand that drew an errant forehand return. Yet the left-hander from the Czech Republic was unlucky on the next point.

Her first serve down the T was precise and penetrating. Garcia could only stab at it but her chip return landed accidentally short. Kvitova was forced to come forward. Lunging, she netted an awkward backhand down the line. Garcia had garnered a second set point, and she converted it confidently with a sharply angled backhand crosscourt eliciting an errant forehand from Kvitova. The 23-year-old had claimed the set, 8-6 in a tense tie-break. Garcia had much momentum on her side, rolling to a 4-1 lead in the second set, reaching 0-40 in Kvitova's serve.

The two-time Wimbledon champion refused to surrender. She held on, broke, and served with a chance to make it to 4-4. But too often Kvitova wanders inexplicably from brilliance to mediocrity, often when it matters the most. She sprayed a forehand down the line wide to fall behind 5-3. Garcia struggled to close out the account but managed to move past her nerves, holding serve, winning 7-6 (6), 6-3. The two countries were tied at 1-1.

That was where it stood overnight. The following day, Garcia took on Pliskova, knowing full well how much France needed her to succeed. She did not let them down, not in the least. The Frenchwoman connected beautifully with a forehand crosscourt return winner taken early to break for 3-1. She held at 15 with an ace for 4-1 and won the set convincingly, 6-3. Pliskova struck back forcefully, building a 3-0 second set lead, holding throughout, releasing a pair of aces at 5-3, holding at love to seal the set 6-3. But Garcia soon regrouped and moved out in front again in the final set. Serving for the match at 5-3, she held on from 15-30 to complete a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 upset. Thanks entirely to the resolute Garcia, France was ahead 2-1 in the best of five match series.

Next up on the program was a showdown between substitutes: Alize Cornet of France versus Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic. An apprehensive Cornet. Strycova has celebrated a respectable 2016 campaign, and she walked on court stationed at No. 20 in the world. The 30-year-old is a seasoned competitor, with a game well rounded and a mind made for such an important and unexpected moment. She seemed to look at this meeting as an opportunity rather than a burden.

For Cornet, that was not necessarily the case.The 26-year-old from Nice—ranked No. 46 in the world—was a bundle of nerves across the opening set, falling 6-2. In the second set, she found her range to a degree, fashioning a 4-1 lead. But then her suspect forehand got in the Frenchwoman's way. The 26-year-old tightened up considerably. Strycova had the upper hand, sweeping four games in a row to lead 5-4, serving for the match at 5-4. A double fault at 30-30 was costly, although Strycova advanced to deuce. She then serve-volleyed behind a second delivery, but the tactic backfired. Not closing in tight enough on the net,she netted a backhand first volley on the stretch. Strycova followed with a netted drop shot. It was 5-5.

The two uneasy players exchanged breaks of serve again to set up a tie-break. Strycova bravely kept coming forward, moving into a 5-2 lead.. Cornet captured the next two points, but Strycova would not budge from her attacking game. A deep backhand approach set up a forehand volley winner for 6-4, and then Strycova swung a first serve wide in the deuce court with heavy slice to set up an easy put-away volley. The Czech Republic got the victory 6-2, 7-6 (4), leaving a doubles encounter to determine the outcome of the weekend series.

Garcia and Mladenovic joined forces to face Pliskova and Strycova. The first set of this intriguing clash was locked at 5-5 when Mladenovic was broken after harming her cause decidedly with a double fault for 15-40. Strycova welcomed this opening whole-heartedly, holding at love to give the Czech Republic the set, 7-5. The pattern was identical in the second set. Once more at 5-5, Mladenovic was broken, this time by an inspired piece of shotmaking from Pliskova. After a series of well struck shots at the opposing team who were both at the net, Pliskova made a nifty pick-up, flicking a topspin lob winner crosscourt. It was up to Strycova to close out the account, and she did a first rate job, holding at 30 with cool resolve, refusing to let the situation stand in her way. The Czech Republic duo prevailed 7-5, 7-5 and they were victorious 3-2.

I enjoyed it all immensely. Garcia was heroic in defeat. Pliskova was typically professional. Strycova stepped in and played a pivotal role in the triumph of her nation. Winning away from home was no facile feat for these accomplished women, but they came through with style, poise and unmistakable authority. The women's game thus concluded the 2016 season on the highest possible note.

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