SOCHI, RUSSIA: Russia is not used to having to play for Fed Cup by BNP Paribas survival. The last time their place in global tennis’ elite was on the line was in 2006, when they beat Croatia 3-2 to preserve their status.
Eight years on and they faced a similar test against Argentina, after falling to Australia in the first round. There was an inexperienced look to the Russian squad, with no Maria Sharapova, Maria Kirilenko or Svetlana Kuznetsova to fall back on.
Instead Ekaterina Makarova, who has become a pivotal player over the last year and a half, as well as the quickly improving Elena Vesnina were given the task of leading an inexperienced home side.
For Vesnina, it was an extra special moment as she was playing in her home city of Sochi, which just a couple of months ago had hosted the Winter Olympic games.
“It’s always great to play at home and when your home crowd is behind you it always helps,” said the 27 year-old, who says she ordered 70 tickets for tie to accommodate all her friends and family. “It always helps for Fed Cup and Davis Cup matches because when you have the crowd behind your back, it’s like 50 percent of your victory.”
Argentina was looking to reach the World Group for the first time since 2009. However, with their top ranked player Paula Ormaechea sitting at 71 in the world, there was not great optimism about producing an upset in the South Americans’ camp.
“If the tie is not for us this time, it is still really good what we are doing. We do not have the best team, but we are working for the future,” the 21 year-old Ormaechea mentioned. “It’s not all about being in the World Group next year, but we want to be with the best players, but I know we have to work for it a lot,” she added.
Argentina quickly realized they would be in for a long weekend. Elena Vesnina, who has grown in stature as a singles player over the last year or so, put in an excellent performance to down Argentina’s number one, Ormaechea in straight sets, 63 63. The world number 33 seemed inspired playing in front of her home crowd, as she pulled off the victory against a player who had an 11-1 win-loss record on clay in the Fed Cup coming into this match.
Things would quickly get much worse for the visitors, as they were left with a mountain to climb after Ekaterina Makarova defeated Maria Irigoyen 75 61. The Russian took time to get used to her opponent who she admitted to not knowing anything about, while she found the going tough initially against a fellow lefthander. However, as soon as she hit her stride, she had too much for the Argentine who was ranked 122 places below her in the ratings.
Last year Russia had found themselves 2-0 down against Slovakia in the Fed Cup semi-finals, only to come back to win 3-2. However, there was going to be no lifeline for Argentina, as Makarova sealed the tie in the third rubber, beating Ormaecha 61 62 to seal Russia’s place in the world group for another year.
There was delight for Russia’s captain, Anastasia Myskina, who was appearing in only her second tie in charge of her country, after taking over from Shamil Tarpischev.
“I am so grateful for my team. I think Ekaterina was really good, she is like a leader of the team and she finished the match,” said the 2004 Fed Cup champion. “When you sit, it’s more difficult than when you play because you can’t change anything. You can see if someone is nervous or try to help someone to play better and you are sometimes helpless to help them.”
It was a disappointing weekend for Argentina, who were whitewashed 4-0 after losing the doubles as well. Captain Maria Jose Gaidano believes that perhaps it is better for her country to play at a lower level in order to build confidence.
“If we had won this match then we would have been in the top eight in the world with the likes of Spain or the USA and they have better players than us. We need to keep on improving and keep within the top 16 teams,” Argentina’s Fed Cup captain mentioned.