Prague: Maria Sharapova took Russia within a point of winning the Fed Cup after coming back from a set down to beat the Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova in a tense final rubber in Prague on Sunday. In a clash of the teams' number-one players, Sharapova, the world number four, edged sixth-ranked Kvitova 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in two and a half hours.
Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts during her match against Petra Kvitova of Czech Republic at the International Tennis Federation Fed Cup final match between Czech Republic and Russia in Prague. Pic/AFP
The Czechs, the reigning champions, will now rely on Karolina Pliskova who is due to take on Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the day's second rubber on the hardcourt of Prague's O2 Arena. Kvitova was 4-6 head-to-head with Sharapova before Sunday's rubber after winning their previous encounter in the semi-final of the WTA Tour Finals last month when Sharapova had come back from a four-month pause due to leg and arm problems.
Eager to please the home crowd, a rampant Kvitova broke Sharapova in game one and kept her under constant pressure with daring returns, taking the set with another break as Sharapova volleyed into the net. "Petra played unbelievable in the first set, she was so aggressive, hitting really deep," said Sharapova. Playing only her fifth Fed Cup tie, Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam winner, regained momentum in the second set as the 25-year-old Kvitova seemed to lose concentration.
The 28-year-old Sharapova squandered two break points in game one but gladly accepted the next offer four games later. Kvitova, the left-handed 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon champion, immediately broke her back to love, then averted two break points in an epic game seven before losing her serve once more in game nine, which was enough for Sharapova to win the set in over an hour.
"The second set could go either way and unfortunately it didn't go mine," said Kvitova. "I guess that's what decided the rubber." In the final set, Sharapova broke to go 3-2 on Kvitova's two consecutive crosscourt backhands into the net, then broke again for a rather comfortable win as Kvitova piled up errors.
"In the third set I just felt like I was the fresher one," said Sharapova. She waved aside her reputation of not being a team player, fuelled by news that she is staying at a different hotel than her teammates. "The team supported me so well today, this is one of the few competitions where you're not just playing for yourself," she said.
"I really felt like I would look over to them and every time they are standing up and that's the meaning of this event. "Personally it's an incredible achievement for me because I've never been in a Fed Cup final and I won two of my matches." Kvitova said she had "mixed feelings".
"I think I gave it everything and unfortunately it wasn't enough, she overpowered me." On Saturday, Sharapova won her first ever meeting with Pliskova 6-3, 6-4 to level the score at 1-1 after Kvitova had come back from a set down to beat Pavlyuchenkova 2-6, 6-1, 6-1 in the opener. If the score is tied at 2-2 after Sunday's singles, Czechs Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova are due to play against Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in the final doubles rubber.
The Czechs are seeking their fourth title in five years and ninth overall, including five as Czechoslovakia which went on to split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Russia, who are 2-3 head-to-head with the Czechs -- including three ties between the former Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union -- have won four titles so far.