Shahar Peer 224.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
After more than a decade of playing Fed Cup ties away from home Israeli players and fans were compensated generously on Friday. The women's team was drawn to host Russia at Ramat Hasharon in its first ever World Group tie next February.
A Fed Cup match hasn't been played in Israel since the blue-and-white defeated Lithuania 3-0 in March of 1996. The team has come a long way since and booked its place among the elite eight in July after winning its 11th consecutive tie, defeating Austria 4-1 in the World Group playoff.
"This will be an unprecedented event for women's tennis in Israel," Fed Cup captain Oded Jacob said of the tie, which will be played on February 2 and 3. "Not only will we be playing at home, but we will also face Russia, which has many excellent players. I'm happy for our girls who will finally get to play in front of their home fans after reaching the World Group the hard way, via away ties. The draw is very, very tough. Russia isn't only about Maria Sharapova. They have an amazingly deep squad in which each player has two adequate replacements."
Russia has four players in the world's top 10. Svetlana Kuznetsova (2), Maria Sharapova (4), Anna Chakvetadze (5) and Nadia Petrova (8) could potentially make up two title winning teams, with the 'lowly' ranked Elena Dementieva (15) and Dinara Safina (17) struggling to even make the squad, not to mention play a match.
"The most important thing to us was to host the tie and we got that," said Israel No. 1 Shahar Pe'er (16) who has won 18 of her last 19 matches in the Fed Cup. "This is the toughest team we could have been drawn against, but our fans could make the difference and help us overcome this difficult obstacle."
In Moscow Kuznetsova beat Mara Santangelo of Italy 6-1, 6-2 in the second singles match of the Fed Cup final on Saturday to bring Russia within one victory of its third title.
Earlier, Chakvetadze struggled past Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
Kuznetsova, the 2004 US Open champion, had little trouble against Santangelo, winning the match in 57 minutes. She closed out the match with three consecutive aces.
But she said the match was more challenging than it may have appeared.
"It wasn't that easy," she said. Santangelo "was serving really fast so I was trying to vary my returns. I was trying in that way to break her rhythm." Kuznetsova, who lost both her singles matches when Russia beat France for its crown in 2004, will have a chance to clinch the tie when she faces Schiavone in the first reverse singles on Sunday.
"I definitely have very good chances," Kuznetsova said. "I have to play my game and take control of the points. And it's definitely going to be a very interesting match to play." Chakvetadze, a US Open semifinalist, won only two points in the first two games as she fell behind 2-0 in the first set. But she broke back immediately, capitalizing on Schiavone's three double faults, and a second break in the seventh game was enough to win the set.
The two traded breaks to start the second, and the 25th-ranked Schiavone then broke again to go up 4-2.
Chakvetadze broke back to make it 5-4 after the Italian netted a low backhand volley. But she was unable to keep the momentum, falling 40-love down on her serve in the next game and Schiavone leveled the match 1-1 when Chakvetadze's return went wide.
In the decisive third set, Chakvetadze fell behind 3-0, before fighting back to level at 3-3.
"I thought we were going to lose the match," Chakvetadze said. "But I said to myself that I have to fight." Schiavone held her next serve before Chakvetadze won the next three games, ending the match with a long backhand cross on her second match point.
Still, she said she was unhappy with her serve.
"I will practice. I have to serve much better," she said.
Maria Sharapova, who has never played for Russia in the Fed Cup citing injuries and is still bothered by a right shoulder injury, was invited by Russia captain Shamil Tarpischev to practice with the team. She cheered Saturday from the team's bench.
Russian media reports have suggested that Sharapova's presence was a source of tension for the team, and that she was not part of the Fed Cup lineup because of personal friction with other Russian players.
But Kuznetsova said "there is no problem between us and Maria Sharapova ... she's an absolutely okay girl." Italy defeated Belgium to win its first Fed Cup title last season. Russia is unbeaten in three matches against Italy, and won the Fed Cup title in 2004 and '05.
Reverse singles and doubles are on Sunday.