In Fed Cup Fables, wtatennis.com will look back at the most memorable ties over the past five years of Fed Cup. Continuing the countdown is the Czech Republic's comeback to keep their title defence alive against Romania in the 2016 first round.
Fed Cup Rewind:
2015: Czech Republic d. Russia, final
HOW THEY GOT THERE: The past decade saw the Czech Republic take a virtual stranglehold over the Fed Cup. Their team was strong at the top, having been led for several years by two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova; proficient in doubles, with two-time major winners Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Sestini Hlavackova forming a bedrock of the squad; deep, with a pool of Top 50 stalwarts from Lucie Safarova to Barbora Strycova to choose from; and self-renewing, with the big-serving Karolina Pliskova among several young players making their mark.
Consequently, by the time 2016 rolled around, the country had lifted the trophy four times in the decade already and entered this season as two-time defending champions, having been undefeated since the 2013 semifinals at the hands of Italy. Since then, the Czech Republic had gone on a six-tie winning streak, storming to the 2015 title with defeats of Canada, France and, in a classic final, Russia.
By contrast, Romania had only just re-emerged into the World Group after a 24-year absence. The last time the country had competed at this level of Fed Cup had been 1992, led by Irina Spirlea and Ruxandra Dragomir, when the World Group consisted of a 32-team knockout competition held in Germany. Romania had maintained a solid presence in the Top 100 since, but it was Simona Halep's ascension into the elite across 2013-14 that provided the impetus for a reinvigorated squad to haul itself out of the regional level, rising from the Europe/Africa Zone in 2014 to World Group II in 2015.
Two stellar 3-2 wins followed: at home over Spain in the first round of World Group II, with Irina-Camelia Begu playing the role of heroine as, from 1-2 down, she scored consecutive victories in singles and the deciding doubles to seal the tie; and away over Canada in the World Group Play-Offs, with Alexandra Dulgheru posting crucial singles wins over Eugenie Bouchard and Françoise Abanda to mark Romania's return to the World Group. Their reward was to host the Czechs in Cluj-Napoca the following February.
WHAT HAPPENED: Simona Halep had yet to drop a set to Karolina Pliskova in three previous meetings, and she maintained this pattern to take a set lead in the opening rubber, smothering the Czech with defence and essaying a series of remarkable gets. But, consistently getting herself to net, Pliskova began to force her way back into the match with serving and hitting that even Halep's scampering couldn't track down - and wrested control for a 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-2 win.
With World No.9 Petra Kvitova up next for the visitors against World No.37 Monica Niculescu, the Czechs seemed to be in the driving seat. But Kvitova was coming off an Australian swing in which she had won just one match, and proved unable to deal with Niculescu's inspired array of slices, short angles and dropshots - and the Romanian would level the tie 6-3, 6-4 with her third career Top 10 win.
Both teams' No.1 players had failed to live up to their status on Day 1, and Day 2 saw Halep and Kvitova engage in a heavyweight battle to redeem themselves. It was a classic: over two hours and 11 minutes, Halep's rock-solid consistency from the baseline was implacable in the face of Kvitova's relentless aggression, which netted the Czech 38 winners in total. Halep would also have to draw on all of her resilience to grind out the win: having taken a 6-4, 2-0 lead, a spell of irresistible play saw Kvitova rebound to take seven of the next eight games, and then capture the first break of the deciding set. But with her back to the wall, it was Halep who rose to the occasion, reeling off five of the last six games of the match from 1-2 down in the third set to finish off a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory.
Day 2's drama was far from over, though. Pliskova and Niculescu would also deliver a nailbiting three-setter - and this time, it was the hosts mounting the comeback as Niculescu, down 4-6, 2-4, reeled off four straight games to level the rubber and put Romania within a set of upsetting the defending champions. The Pliskova serve was at its impregnable best, though: one break would decide the third set, and once the Czech had captured it she never looked back as she sealed a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win.
Thus, the tie would go down to the wire - and here, the Czechs' doubles capacity would give them the advantage on paper as the in-form Pliskova was paired with the experienced stalwart Barbora Strycova. Their quality - and harmonious balance of strengths, with Strycova's touch complementing Pliskova's power perfectly - would be too much for the Romanian team of Andreea Mitu and Raluca Olaru, and a 6-2, 6-3 triumph sealed the Czechs' escape.
WHAT IT MEANT: The Czechs would retain their iron grip on the Fed Cup trophy for another year, with their doubles prowess key to completing the hat-trick: each of their 2016 ties went down to a deciding doubles rubber, with Pliskova teaming up with Lucie Hradecka to seal a semifinal victory over Switzerland in Lucerne and reuniting with Strycova to edge France's Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic 7-5, 7-5 in Strasbourg to win the final.
Pliskova would be the Czech team's lynchpin throughout their Fed Cup campaign this year, contributing singles wins over Timea Bacsinszky in the semifinals and Mladenovic in the final as well - and this would bolster an overall season in which she scored some of her best career results, most notably the first of two Premier 5 trophies to date at Cincinnati as well as a maiden Grand Slam final at the US Open.
Though the Czechs' 10-tie winning streak would finally be snapped in the 2017 semifinals by the USA, they would return to full strength the following year to recapture the Fed Cup trophy in 2018, taking their haul of titles to six in the 2010s alone.
But 2019 would see belated revenge for this result for Romania. Having lost their follow-up 2016 World Group Play-Off tie to Germany to fall back down to World Group II, they found themselves in danger of sinking back into the zonal stages in 2017 after losing their first round to Belgium. Only a dramatic 3-2 win over Great Britain prevented that - and marked the start of a resurgence, with 2018 seeing a rise back into the World Group, where they were drawn against the Czech Republic once again.
This time, it was the Czechs who had the home advantage in Ostrava - but the Romanians who inflicted defeat on them, with Halep winning both of her rubbers over Katerina Siniakova and Pliskova before Begu and Niculescu teamed up to take an epic deciding doubles 6-7(2), 6-4, 6-4 over Barbora Krejcikova and Siniakova. This result would seal Romania's first Fed Cup semifinal since 1973 - though once there, they would be on the losing side of another 3-2 nailbiter at the hands of eventual champions France.