OSTRAVA, Czech Republic -- Romania made it into their first Fed Cup World Group semifinal ever after Simona Halep and the doubles team of Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu claimed massive wins to shock the defending champion Czech Republic, 3-2.
The highly anticipated Fed Cup encounter between Top 5 players went the way of Romania, as Halep defeated Karolina Pliskova, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, to give her country a crucial point.
After two closely-contested sets, Halep pulled away at the very end of another tight set to overcome her fellow former World No.1 Pliskova in a gripping two-hour and 37-minute tilt. With her victory on Pliskova's home soil, Halep avenged a three-set Fed Cup loss to the Czech in Romania in 2016.
Czech Republic's Katerina Siniakova leveled the tie at two matches apiece after a 6-4, 6-2 singles victory over Mihaela Buzarnescu in one hour and 26 minutes, giving her country hope that they would be able to keep their Fed Cup winning streak alive.
But Siniakova and her regular partner Barbora Krejcikova, the No.1 and No.2 doubles players in the WTA rankings, were stunned by Begu and Niculescu, 6-7(2), 6-4, 6-4, in an incredible, grueling, two-hour and 53-minute live-rubber doubles match, to put Romania into the Fed Cup final four for the first time.
In the first singles match on the second day of the tie, Halep needed to serve for the match twice after failing to close at 5-2 in the final set, but got the job done on her second time of asking. The Romanian had two fewer winners than Pliskova, but the Czech was undone by 62 unforced errors throughout the clash, which was 24 more than the more steady Romanian.
The players exchanged breaks in the first game, but after that, Halep did not face a break point in the rest of the opening frame, while Pliskova faced three break points in her next four service games. Halep broke through at 4-4, where an error-prone Pliskova dropped serve to give Halep a chance to serve out the set.
At 5-4, Halep quickly raced to triple set point, but fiery forehands by Pliskova pulled the Czech back to deuce. A backhand winner down the line gave Halep a fourth set point, but that too was saved. But a fifth set point came Halep’s way after a series of strong forehands, and Halep finally banked the set there, after a Pliskova backhand flew wide.
Pliskova got off to a hot start in the second set, breaking Halep at love for a 3-1 lead after the Romanian’s backhand went awry. Halep climbed back on serve at 4-3 before Pliskova broke the Romanian once more, to serve for the set at 5-3. However, strong returning by Halep allowed her to break and pull back on serve again.
At 5-5, Pliskova saved three break points before firing a backhand winner to hold for a 6-5 lead. That game proved to be pivotal, as Halep was unable to convert a game point, and then finished two straight points with backhands into the net to let Pliskova level the match at one set apiece.
Halep and Pliskova broke each other to love in the first two games of the decider, as the intensity of the Ostrava arena became palpable. It was Halep who handled the pressure best at first, slamming a backhand winner to break again for 3-2, and then working her way through a protracted game to attain a second break and a 5-2 lead.
Serving for the match, Halep hit a clutch of errors to drop serve. The Romanian held a match point on Pliskova’s serve in the next game, but the Czech survived to hold for 5-4. In the next game, though, Halep was unfazed, and moved to a second match point with an ace. There, a wide forehand return gave Halep a well-earned win.
But Siniakova tried to start a splendid Czech comeback with a swift victory over Buzarnescu. It was the Romanian who had the early lead, as she broke Siniakova in the Czech’s first service game after Siniakova fired back-to-back double faults from deuce. After consolidating for a 3-0 lead, Buzarnescu had the momentum.
But Siniakova quickly turned the set around from there, getting back on serve at 3-2, then breaking Buzarnescu at love via a backhand winner down the line, to lead 4-3. Siniakova escaped a break point in the following game, closing out the 5-3 lead with another backhand down-the-line winner, and she wrapped up the one-set lead two games later.
Siniakova had it all her way in the second set, as she went up an early break to lead 2-1, and broke a second time for good measure as Buzarnescu hit four double faults in one game to hand over a 5-2 lead. Siniakova held for the match in the next game, once a Buzarnescu forehand went long on the Czech’s second match point.
Siniakova finished the match having won 80 percent of her first service points, and had 13 winners, including three aces. Though Siniakova had 14 unforced errors, Buzarnescu had 21 during the tilt, which was three times the Romanian's winner count.
The tie therefore moved into the decisive doubles match, and the Czech team of Siniakova and Krejcikova had the experience of their stellar 2018 to bolster their spirits. The Czechs won the French Open and Wimbledon last season, en route to finishing the year as the top-ranked doubles team in the world.
Against Begu and Niculescu, the Czechs had a tough time from the outset. With Begu's power complimenting Niculescu's aggression and variety at the net, the Romanian team stayed toe-to-toe with Krejcikova and Siniakova throughout. Four straight service breaks mid-set eventually led to a tiebreak, where the Czechs' lovely volleys earned them six straight points to seal the one-set lead.
The deficit hardly discouraged the Romanians, and they broke the Krejcikova serve in the first game of the second set off of a Niculescu forehand winner. That would prove to be the only break of the set, as the Czechs held only one chance to break back during that timeframe. Niculescu's poaching displays were on point all night, and she used one to polish off the second set and edge her team towards the upset.
The deciding set was intense at the end of a very long day for both teams. Again, the Romanians broke serve in the first game of the set, this time taking Siniakova's delivery away at love. But this time, the Czechs broke back immediately, as Siniakova redeemed herself with more sturdy volleys.
But a Niculescu backhand volley in the next game put the Romanians back up a break, and they consolidated to lead 3-1. However, ferocious forehands by Krejcikova allowed the top-ranked doubles team to pull back even at 4-4, and the mostly partisan Ostrava crowd was raucous in their support.
The Romanians, though, had other plans. They broke Siniakova at love, ending the game with another winning Niculescu volley, to claim a 5-4 lead. Serving for the surprising upset, more brilliant volleying by Niculescu, who was everywhere on the court all match, pulled her and Begu to victory and a historic day for Romania after nearly three hours of play.
More to follow....