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Shahar Pe'er recorded the most impressive win of her young career on Saturday, and followed that up with her most important win to lead Israel to the Fed Cup World Group Playoffs for the first time since 2003.
Israel's teenage star defeated a top-20 player for the first time and teamed with Tzipi Obziler to win the doubles and clinch a 2-1 victory over Serbia-Montenegro in the semifinals at the Fed Cup Europe/Africa Zone Group I tournament in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Now the blue-and-white squad will face one of the losing teams from this weekend's World Group II ties or one of the other teams to advance from the Zone Group I tournaments in a best-of-five tie on July 15-16 for a spot among the competition's top 16.
Pe'er and Obziler finished the week undefeated in both singles and doubles play. Obziler, who at 132 in the world is ranked nearly 100 spots behind her higher-profile teammates, only took the court once in a singles rubber, but it was a crucial one. The veteran defeated teenager Ekaterina Dzehalevich (285) 6-7, 7-5, 6-4 in Friday's tie against Belarus, before Pe'er (35) scored a 6-2, 6-1 victory at Anastasia Yakimova's (86) expense to clinch Israel's spot in the semifinals.
On Saturday, Anna Smashnova (39) got the ball rolling in the first rubber and seemed to be on her way to victory before she retired with cramps. Facing Ana Timotic (214), Smashnova recorded the only break of the first set in the 12th game for a 7-5 lead and pulled ahead in the second before the cramping began.
Smashnova played through the pain and received treatment during the eighth game, which she went on to win for a 5-3 advantage. However, she didn't last much longer. She earned three match points in the 10th game, but, barely able to stand, Smashnova finally retired leading 5-4 at 40-40.
The loss put Pe'er in a tight spot against Serbian star Ana Ivanovic (17), but the Israeli hero outlasted her counterpart 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 to even the score.
Pe'er won four straight games to clinch the opening set, but with the score tied 4-4 in the second, the hard-hitting Ivanovic broke Pe'er and evened the score. Both players had their chances in the third and deciding set, as Ivanovic broke to take a 2-1 advantage, Pe'er won the next three games, and then Ivanovic broke again to make it 4-4. Then the Israeli showed her grit, winning the last two games to win the match and keep Israel alive in the tie.
At the end of the match, Pe'er shouted to Smashnova, "That was for you, Anna."
The doubles rubber would prove to be the most intense, as Pe'er and Obziler needed more than three hours before topping Ivanovic and Danica Krstajic 6-1, 4-6, 10-8.
The Serbians won the opening game, but Pe'er and Obziler took the next six to seize control. But Ivanovic and Krstajic won the first two games of the second set, increased the lead to 5-2, and even though the Israelis closed the gap to 5-4, held on to even the match. With a spot in the World Group Playoffs on the line, both teams dug deep. Israel went up 3-0, Serbia came back to tie it at 3-3. Israel led 4-3 and 5-4, but each time Ivanovic and Krstajic came back. Finally, the Serbians broke through and served for the match at 6-5, but Pe'er and Obziler wouldn't go down.
Ivanovic and Krstajic again served for set at 8-7, but the Israeli duo again broke their serve and won the next two games to seal the win and start the celebrating among the squad.
Pe'er finished the week 9-0, winning five singles and four doubles matches. Obziler went 5-0, while moving into the top 20 in all-time Fed Cup victories with 45; is sixth on the all-time doubles victories list with 27 and is tied for fifth all-time in ties played (55).
Smashnova, who went 1-3 this week, increased her lead in ties played to 62.
Israel's last trip to the World Group Playoffs came in 2003, when the team lost 4-1 to a Swiss side lead by Patty Schnyder (8) in Switzerland. Israel also reached the World Group Playoffs in 2002 (lost to USA 5-0) and 2001 (lost to Hungary 3-0).