Last weekend, the Czech Republic won its third Fed Cup in a row and its fifth in the last six years, establishing themselves as undoubtedly one of the finest of all Fed Cup teams. But where does this current Czech side rank in the all-time list of great Fed Cup sides? Here are the five finest, in ascending order.
5. RUSSIA (2004-2008)
Russia almost matched the current Czech side, as it won four out of five Fed Cups in the mid-noughties. It was truly a golden age for Russian women’s tennis as it reaped the dividends of the International Olympic Committee’s historic decision to readmit tennis to the Olympics in Seoul in 1988 for the first time since 1924. As a result of tennis becoming an Olympic sport again, greater coverage and funding, especially in former Communist countries, led to a flowering of Russian female talent some two decades later, including Svetlana Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva and Ana Myskina, with the most famous Russian female of all, Maria Sharapova, belatedly making her debut in the 2008 competition. In this period, “Mother Russia” (and all her daughters) wielded a tennis racket.
4. SPAIN (1991-1998)
If Russia dominated the noughties, the 1990s belonged to Spanish women. Between 1991 and 1998 they won five titles, including a hat-trick between 1993 and 1995, and were runners-up twice. The heartbeat of that side was the great Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, who played in all of Spain’s winning sides in that decade. She was ably assisted by Conchita Martínez, who played in four of the five title wins and often paired with Sánchez Vicario in doubles. In many ways, the Spanish women paved the way for their male compatriots, who achieved the same kind of dominance in the Davis Cup in the noughties. Consequently, there is a certain pleasing symmetry in the fact that Conchita Martínez is now the captain of both Spain’s Fed Cup team and Davis Cup team.
3. AUSTRALIA (1970-1980)
The Fed Cup in the first half of the 1970s belonged to Australia; the second half, as Sven-Goran Eriksson used to say, “was not so good”. Such was the strength in depth of Australian tennis at this time for both genders (the men almost monopolised the Davis Cup in the 1950s and 1960s, or at least duopolosied it with the USA) that its women could win the 1970 tournament with such relative unknowns as Karen Krantzcke and Judy Dalton. In 1971, however, Australia could put its dream pairing together, with the incomparable Margaret Court, who had already helped Australia to win the Fed Cup three times in the 1960s, making her final bow in the tournament alongside the brilliant newcomer Evonne Goolagong. Goolagong also participated in Australia’s two subsequent wins in 1973 and 1974, but then began the long drought, as Australia lost the next six finals. That experience was obviously so traumatic that Australian women’s tennis has never fully recovered, with only one other runners-up spot (in 1993) to show for the four decades since.
2. CZECH REPUBLIC (2011-2016)
For all of the Czech Republic’s recent domination of the Fed Cup, they only rank second in the all-time list of the finest Fed Cup sides. Their astonishing run of success over the last five years was only interrupted in 2013 when they lost in the semi-final to Italy on clay in Palermo. It is worth emphasising that that Italian team was itself a multiple winner of the Fed Cup, with 2013 providing its fourth win in eight tournaments. Nevertheless, the Czechs have now surpassed the Italians and proved themselves undoubtedly the greatest women’s tennis team of recent times. Initially, Petra Kvitova was their “go-to” woman, helping to inspire many of their recent victories, but such is the Czechs’ current strength in depth that last weekend they could afford for Kvitova to lose the one game she played and still triumph. This time round, it was the new Czech star, Karolina Pliskova, who capped off a memorable 2016, in which she reached her first Major final (the US Open, where she lost to Angelique Kerber). She steered her country to perhaps its greatest triumph, recovering from losing her first singles rubber to win the second, before partnering the veteran Barbora Strýcová to the crucial doubles win that sealed the tie.
1. USA (1976-1982)
As in the Davis Cup, the USA are historically the dominant team in the Fed Cup, with 17 titles in all, albeit that the last one was in 2000, when they could boast a truly formidable team including a naturalised Monica Seles. However, it was an even more famous naturalised American, Martina Navratilova, who helped to complete the ultimate period of US domination of the Fed Cup in 1982. She competed alongside Chris Evert in probably the finest Fed Cup team ever (or at least one that would give the 1971 Australia side of Court and Goolagong a serious run for their money). Prior to Navratilova’s arrival in the American team, it had been Evert and Billie Jean King, then in the twilight of her career, who presided over the previous six wins between 1976 and 1981, with the unfortunate Australians providing the first five runners-up in that period and Great Britain and West Germany the last two. It was truly a golden age for American women’s tennis, but in our new age of Trump (or “Trumpage”) and its new hard line on immigration it is fascinating to reflect that Navratilova, who went on to contribute to two more US wins in 1986 and 1989 (to go alongside the title she won for Czechoslovakia in 1975) might never have been considered eligible for inclusion.
A final thought or a future Fed Cup winner?
As even this brief summation shows, the Fed Cup has tended to be dominated by one country for a considerable stretch of time, before another country eventually rises to wrestle control of it. The Czechs are so dominant now, with Pliskova taking over from Kvitova as their star player, that it is hard to envisage another team seriously challenging them in the near future. For once, however, it is not entirely fanciful to imagine that it could be Great Britain that could do it. Following Andy Murray’s superb leadership of the Davis Cup side in recent years, culminating in last year’s historic win (the first since 1936, when Fred Perry was still playing), it is possible that Johanna Konta could inspire Britain’s women to similar success in the years ahead. She has possible support in the shape of Heather Watson and Laura Robson. If both those women, particularly Robson, can rediscover the form and fitness that has eluded them for so long, they might be able to form a formidable team alongside Konta, who, of course, is now one of the world’s top ten. Then Great Britain might achieve something that it could not even manage in the golden age of Virginia Wade and Sue Barker, and finally win the Fed Cup.