Davis Cup might be dead, but Fed Cup is still very much alive — and oh, how fully alive it was this past weekend. Each of the four nations which advanced to the Fed Cup semifinals in April felt the elation of victory on an international stage, but none with more drama or poignancy than Romania.
Australia did beat the United States, 3-2, in a riveting quarterfinal tie, but the final doubles match — though close — was a straight-set affair for the Australians. It is true that Australia hasn’t won the Fed Cup since 1974, but the Australians do have seven Fed Cup championships to their credit. It means a ton for the Australians to win Fed Cup in the 21st century, something they have not yet done, but they can still point to past glories.
Australia and France (which defeated Belgium) have won multiple Fed Cup titles, and will carry those accomplishments into this April’s semifinals. The other two nations joining them have not yet won the Fed Cup, and of the two, Belarus has made one Fed Cup Final, in 2017, before losing to the United States. Belarus moved easily through its quarterfinal, 3-0 over Germany.
This leaves one other nation: Romania.
The Romanians had not previously reached a Fed Cup semifinal heading into their tie this past weekend. Their opponent was merely the best Fed Cup nation this century, the Czech Republic. The Czechs are second all-time in Fed Cup titles, with 11 (trailing only the United States, which won 18 titles, 16 of them in the 20th century dating back to the creation of the Fed Cup in 1963). The Czech Republic won six of the last eight Fed Cups, making itself a legitimate Fed Cup dynasty.
The Romanians had to beat the Czechs and do so on Czech soil, in Ostrava. Even with Simona Halep, it was not going to be an easy task. As long as the Czechs could split four singles matches by winning the reverse singles against the non-Halep entries, their elite, major-championship-winning doubles team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova — triumphant last year at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, enough to become the year-end No. 1 team on the WTA Tour — had the chance to win the tie and maintain Czech dominance.
The Czechs achieved their short-term goal of splitting the four singles matches and creating a deciding doubles rubber. Halep was brilliant in her two singles matches, winning both — including a high-level performance against Karolina Pliskova on Sunday — but when Siniakova defeated Mihaela Buzarnescu in the fourth rubber, the Czechs had seemingly gained the upper hand with the tie level at 2-2.
The best WTA doubles team of 2018, playing at home, in a one-match winner-take-all situation? The Czechs would have signed up for this deal before the weekend.
It was up to Monica Niculescu and Irina-Camelia Begu to defy the conventional wisdom and spring a resonant upset.
Not only did they do that; they did so in a nearly three-hour match which carried its own added piece of tennis history:
Begu & Niculescu battle back to beat Krejcikova & Siniakova, 67(2) 64 64 in 2h53m.
Romania wins, 3-2, serving Czech Republic their first loss on home ground in TEN years.
— Ed Salmon (@fogmount) February 10, 2019
You’re not supposed to be able to beat the Czechs in the Czech Republic in Fed Cup — at least not this decade.
Niculescu and Begu had other ideas. Now, everything seems possible for Romania, which will play France in France while Belarus travels to Australia in the semifinals.
Do you think this was a remotely ordinary victory for Romania? The emotions tell a different — and transcendent — story:
'The desire, I wanted so much to win'
— Fed Cup (@FedCup) February 10, 2019
That’s how much the moment meant to Niculescu.
This, below, is how much the moment meant to Halep, who had to watch that fifth rubber from the sidelines:
That speed 🏃♀️😂 pic.twitter.com/YBVePER5zK
— Ramona Toderaş (@RamonaToderas) February 10, 2019
The reality of the Fed Cup semifinals can be viewed from multiple vantage points. One is that the two nations seeking their first Fed Cup title — Romania and Belarus — will be the away teams in the semifinal ties. It is as though the fates are saying, “If you want to win the first Fed Cup, we’re going to make it as difficult as possible.”
A second detail of these semis is that if Romania and Belarus can both win away from home, the Fed Cup Final will be guaranteed to produce a first-time champion.
A third detail: With these results, the Fed Cup will have a new champion outside the Czech Republic-Italy-Russia trio for just the second time since 2003. From 2004-2018 — the last 15 Fed Cups, those three nations won 14 Fed Cup championships, the sole exception being the United States in 2017. The Czechs won 6, the Italians and Russians 4 apiece.
This Fed Cup final four has fresh faces. Two nations have never won. Australia hasn’t won in 45 years. The French have tasted more recent success than the other three nations, but haven’t won since 2003.
It wasn’t until 2005 that all Fed Cup ties were played under the recognizable Davis Cup structure of home-and-away ties. When France last won the Fed Cup in 2003, it defeated the United States… in Moscow.
When Australia won its last Fed Cup in 1974, it defeated the United States… in Naples, Italy.
This 2019 edition is the 57th Fed Cup. Among the four semifinalists, Australia is the only nation to win a Fed Cup Final on home soil: twice, in 1965 (Melbourne versus the United States) and 1971 (Perth versus Great Britain).
Whichever nation wins the 2019 Fed Cup, it will either be a nation which hasn’t won it at all; a nation which hasn’t ever won it on home soil; or a nation which hasn’t won at home since 1971.
That’s new, and that’s what will make these semifinals and final so compelling.