U.S. stunned by Slovakia in Prague;
must beat Spain at BJK Cup Finals
Victoria Chiesa | November 2, 2021
Team USA fell short in its first round-robin tie of the 2021 Billie Jean King Cup Finals in dramatic fashion on Tuesday night, losing out to an inspired team from Slovakia, 2-1, in a deciding doubles match. In the winner-take-all finale, Tereza Mihalikova and Viktoria Kuzmova, both 23, teamed up to save a match point and edge Billie Jean King Cup debutant Caroline Dolehide and CoCo Vandeweghe in the deciding doubles match, 2-6, 7-6(5), [12-10].
After trailing by a set and a break, Dolehide and Vandeweghe played inspired tennis to turn the second set around, and later erased an 8-4 deficit in the deciding match tiebreak, saving a match point at 9-8, before giving themselves a chance to win the tie at 10-9. The combination of a big serve from Kuzmova and a finishing backhand volley at the net from Mihalikova—a former junior Australian Open champion, who, prior to this week, had never before contested a live rubber in the competition for her country—denied the U.S. ADVERTISEMENT the win, and earned them the first of three straight points to take victory.
"It was a close one. Obviously, we wanted that really bad. As my first match playing for us, it was a big one and there's no one I'd rather have by my side than CoCo," Dolehide said after the match. "We had some really good energy out there. We started a little bit slow, just figuring out how to return well, the best serving positions and when to go [across at the net].
"We got it together in the second set. We played really aggressive and we played a really good tiebreaker with a lot of energy, and we brought that into the third-set breaker with that little comeback in the end when we were down 8-4. It was an overall good experience and solid match and we're going to learn from this and come back stronger."
The tie came down to doubles after the two teams split the earlier singles matches, despite Slovakia boasting just one of its five players inside the WTA's current Top 100: Kuzmova got her team off to a bright start with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Shelby Rogers before Danielle Collins rolled to a 6-3, 6-2 win over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.
Despite a difference of over 130 places in the WTA rankings, world No. 177 Kuzmova—who has a career-best singles rank of No. 43, one spot short of Rogers' current rank—showed flashes of the form that got her there and rallied from 3-1 deficits in each set.
"She served well for sure, and I definitely had chances that I just didn't convert on, which is frustrating," Rogers said. "I knew she could serve well at times. I was going to have to somehow defuse that. I got chances. I got what I wanted. It's just, you have to make it happen... A lot of girls get super fired-up playing for their country. Some get nervous. There are just a lot of variables that go into that. I feel like coming into a team competition like this, it's pretty much an even playing field.
"I'm always nervous before any match even at WTA tournaments. There's definitely a different feeling playing for your country, and it's a great honor and a great privilege. I just tried to embrace that and just didn't go my way today. It's a different atmosphere. It's really nice to be back and it motivates me to want to do better and be back for more."
In the match of No. 1 players, Collins dominated against Schmiedlova, the world No. 83, from the start: the University of Virginia product, who knows how to win in a team format, won 12 of the first 14 points of the match and never faced a break point in 67 minutes on court. Hitting seven aces, she lost just 12 points in nine service games overall, and broke Schmiedlova three times.
"I think I started off the points really solid with my serves and returns. I think because of how strongly I was serving and returning, I was able to dictate play pretty much the entire way through," Collins said. "I stuck to my tactics. I ran around the court well when I needed to, and I was just pretty relentless about my game style and and being aggressive, and didn't really give her an opportunity to get into the match. That was what I was hoping I would do to keep us in it, so I'm glad that it ended up working out.
"One of the special things about playing on a team is if one person has a tough day on court, then another person can come in and try to keep us alive. It's a little bit nerve-wracking because I knew if I lost the match, you know, we would have lost that tie [there]. I also felt pretty confident with how I've been playing this last week and this year. [I've] played in a lot of high-pressure situations throughout my career, and especially in a team setting in college tennis, so I feel very comfortable playing in this environment."
Team USA takes on Spain on Wednesday in its final Group C tie with the winner set to advance out of the group. Despite Slovakia's overall win vs. the U.S., a loss to Spain on Monday and an inferior games-won percentage to the other two teams combined to eliminate them. Spain is expected to field world No. 37 Sara Sorribes Tormo and former Top 10 player Carla Suarez Navarro in singles.
"It was a tough and well-fought match from both sides. Credit to Slovakia; they took some opportunities and they took the match," U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said. "Shelby started off really strong. That match could have gone either way. Danielle came out extremely strong and put us on the board, and these two left it all out there. I'm really proud of Caroline. It was her first Billie Jean King Cup experience and CoCo showed good leadership out there. It was just a really well-fought match, and that match could have gone either way, obviously, in that tiebreak.
"These girls are going to take care of their bodies tonight, hydrate, get to bed and rest. We'll stay up and we'll put some game plans together, prepare and get these girls out on the practice court. They're hungry to play, and I think there'll be even more determined to come out here and to play. It's still anyone's ballgame, so we're still in it."
Photo: Danielle Collins serves against Anna Karolina Schmiedlova: Photo credit: ITF/Kopatsch/Sidorjak/Zimmer