The Federation Cup (or Fed Cup, for short) has always been the poor relation of international team tennis. The Davis Cup, the equivalent competition for men, began in 1900, while the Fed Cup only began in 1963; the Davis Cup is being relaunched next year, while various Fed Cup captains (including Britain’s Anne Keothavong) have claimed that the Fed Cup is being overlooked; and this year, as has been the case in recent years, the Fed Cup Final is on the same weekend as the start of the ATP Tour Finals, which means there is not the focus on it that there should be.
Nevertheless, despite its relative lack of publicity and status compared with the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup has always been a fantastic tournament, and one that has produced some fine finals. So, as Prague prepares to host this weekend’s final between the Czech Republic (the finest Fed Cup team of recent years) and the USA (the defending champions and historically the most successful Fed Cup team), here are the five finest Fed Cup Finals. Each one went down to the deciding rubber and consequently each one was something of a classic.
- 2016: CZECH REPUBLIC BEAT FRANCE 3-2 IN FRANCE
The last three Fed Cup Finals have all gone down to the wire, including last year’s edition (in which the USA beat Belarus in Minsk), but the pick of the recent bunch was the 2016 Final between the Czech Republic and France. The Czechs had won four of the previous five Fed Cups, capitalising on their own “golden generation” of women, including double Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova and former World No.1 Karolína Plíšková.
However, Kvitova was not at her best in 2016, losing her only singles match against Caroline Garcia in three sets. So it was up to Plíšková to lead the fight for the Czechs and she did so in spectacular style. First, she won her opening singles match against Kristina Mladenovic 16-14 in the third set, making it the kind of match that might never happen again if the Fed and Davis Cups follow Wimbledon’s lead and introduce final set tiebreakers.
Plíšková then teamed up with “The Third Woman”, as it were, of Czech tennis, Barbora Strýcová, in the deciding doubles. Strýcová had already replaced Kvitova in the second set of singles matches, crucially beating Alizé Cornet in straight sets. Then she and Plíšková beat Garcia and Mladenovic in straight sets in the doubles, to deny France its first Fed Cup since 1997, which, surprisingly, is the only time that French women have ever won the Fed Cup.
- 2011: CZECH REPUBLIC BEAT RUSSIA 3-2 IN RUSSIA
The long history of Soviet-era oppression of eastern Europe, including the infamous suppression of the “Prague Spring” in 1968, means that any sporting competition between Russia and one of its former Communist dominions always has an edge. In 2011, when the Czech Republic was competing in a Fed Cup Final for the first time since it had split from Slovakia in 1993, there was an extra edge. “Czechoslovakia”, as it had been, had won the Fed Cup five times, with the great Martina Navratilova competing in the first victory in 1975 (before she became an American citizen). But 2011 represented the Czech Republic’s first chance to win the Fed Cup on its own.
In 2011, Kvitova, having won her first Wimbledon that summer and triumphed at the WTA Tour Finals in Istanbul a week before the Fed Cup Final, was at her best and led the Czechs to a famous victory in Russia. She won both her singles matches, against Maria Kirilenko in straight sets and Svetlana Kuznetsova in three hard-fought sets. Consequently, although the Czechs lost their two other singles matches (Lucie Safarova lost to both Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova), they could still win the title at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow if they won the doubles. Lucie Hradecka and Kveta Peschke beat Maria Kirilenko and Elena Vesnina in straight sets to give the Czechs victory and spark a marvellous “Prague Winter” of Czech celebration.
- 2005: RUSSIA BEAT FRANCE 3-2 IN FRANCE
There have been many “rematches” in the history of Fed Cup Finals, with two countries often facing each other in a succession of finals. For example, the first three Davis Cup Finals between 1963 and 1965 were fought out between the USA and Australia (Australia winning twice and the USA once). Forty years later, however, in the mid-noughties, the balance of power in women’s tennis had shifted from the two old “superpowers” who dominated the Fed Cup’s first decade. Instead, it was Russia and France who fought out two successive Fed Cup Finals.
Russia had won the Fed Cup on home soil (or, more precisely, indoor carpet) in 2004, but the 2005 Final was played on the world-famous clay of Roland Garros, making it one of the few Fed Cup or Davis Cup Finals to be played at a Grand Slam venue. On their beloved red dirt, France were favourites to exact revenge on Russia, especially as they had a strong team that contained two Grand Slam Champions in Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce. However, both Major winners were downed in the singles by Elena Dementieva, and Dementieva then beat them both simultaneously, as it were, as she and Dinara Safina won the decisive doubles match against them to ensure Russia retained its title.
- 1995: SPAIN BEAT USA 3-2 IN SPAIN
As the 20th century neared its close, Europe (as in Continental Europe) emerged as a challenger to the traditional tennis supremacy of the USA and Australia, and foremost among the emerging European nations was Spain. It only won its first Fed Cup in 1991, but having lost the 1992 Final to a Steffi Graf-led Germany, it then won the next two editions in 1993 and 1994. So, in 1995 it was looking for an unprecedented hat-trick, but standing in its way was a typically powerful USA team.
The mainstay of the Spanish team in the 1990s was Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, who participated in all five of their triumphs in that decade. (They also won it in 1998.) In 1995, on clay in Valencia, she was at her superb best, leading the Spanish women to their third Fed Cup in a row and firmly establishing Spain as the new and dominant power in women’s tennis. However, that dominance did not last. Since their 1998 triumph, Spain have not won the Fed Cup. Instead, it is Spanish men who have been to the fore, as they have dominated the Davis Cup at the start of the 21st century.
- 1963: USA BEAT AUSTRALIA 2-1 IN THE UNITED KINGDOM
The first Fed Cup Final was also the finest, as it pitted the two traditional giants of tennis against each other. Nearly sixty years on, the USA (with 18 Fed Cup wins) and Australia (with seven) are still the two most successful tennis nations in the women’s game. (Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic have won a total of 10 Fed Cups, but only five apiece.) And that great Fed Cup rivalry between the USA and Australia began in 1963, with a final played on neutral territory, indoors (rather incredibly) at the Queen’s Club, rather than on its famous grass courts, which had been the setting for some of the earlier rounds of the tournament.
Merely mentioning a few of the names involved gives some indication of the prowess of the two teams, albeit that their two greatest players played this match under their “old” (pre-fame) names: Margaret Smith of Australia and Billie Jean Moffitt only acquired their famous surnames of “Court” and “King” respectively when they later married. They did not face each other in the singles (there was only one set of singles rubbers in this first incarnation of the Fed Cup), but they did in the deciding doubles. Smith and her partner, Lesley Turner, eventually won the doubles and the whole tournament when they beat Moffitt and her partner, Darlene Hard, in three closely contested sets. The second, in particular, which the American pairing won 13-11, was an epic in itself and helped to establish, almost immediately, the legitimacy and status of the Federation Cup.