Weekend Roundup (November, 12th): CoCo Vandeweghe shines as USA reclaims the Fed Cup title

Seventeen years ago, when the United States claimed their 17th Fed Cup at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, you would have to be borderline crazy to wager that it would take almost two decades to bag No.18.

After all, four Grand Slam Champions (Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Lisa Raymond) had just thrashed Spain to capture a second consecutive title, and two young phenomena by the name of Serena and Venus Williams were already in the process of changing the WTA Tour and collecting Majors by the bucket load. However, having tasted victory in 1999, the Williams sisters have sparingly participated in the competition this century and by notably skipping the American’s last three Final appearances (2003, 2009, 2010), they left the job for the likes of Meghann Shaughnessy (2003), Alexa Glatch (2009) or Melanie Oudin (2009/2010).

From this perspective, it’s perhaps not as surprising that the most successful nation in the history of the tournament had to toil for so long to reclaim world domination, the wait for a new generation of female tennis stars finally paying off this season. Shrugging off a broken-down Germany squad (4-0) in Hawai last February, and a weakened Czech Republic (3-2) in Tampa two months later, the Americans were back in the decider and prohibitive favourites ahead of the slew of matches in Minsk’s Čyžoŭka-Arena.

Ultimately, no adverse conditions should make up for the massive disparity between the two sides, with the visitors fielding a top-10 player and a Grand Slam Champion while the modest Belarus countered with two players ranked outside the top 70 and trying to step up, once again, for two-time Australian Open Champion Viktoria Azarenka, a national hero stranded in California, USA, due to an ugly custody battle for her infant son.

Aliaksandra Sasnovich was instrumental to Belarus on their way to a first Fed Cup Final (The Associated Press)

Having operated their fair share of miracles without Azarenka, ousting rivals Russia in Moscow on the 2016 World Group playoffs and shocking the Netherlands (4-1) and Switzerland (3-2) in emotional home ties to reach the Final in their maiden World Group appearance, Belarus’ magic would certainly have to run away at some point, and when an authoritarian CoCo Vandeweghe defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-4, 6-4 in the first rubber, many thought the USA would breeze to victory.

However, Belarus still had a few more rabbits to pluck of their hat and Aryna Sabalenka, their pugnacious 19-year-old, decided to throw caution to the wind against US Open Champion Sloane Stephens in the second match; dozens of winners (31) and plenty more unforced errors (57) later (6-3, 3-6, 6-4), she actually managed to level the score at the end of day 1.

Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka reacts after defeating Sloane Stephens in game 2 of the 2017 Fed Cup Final (Getty Images)

Unimpressed, Vandeweghe bounced Sabalenka (7-6, 6-1) to push the USA to the brink of the title Sunday morning, yet Stephens, winless since her triumph in Flushing Meadows, succumbed again, this time to Sasnovich after an exhilarating 4-6, 6-1, 8-6 classic, the home crowd urging the World No.78 as she erased a 2-5 deficit in the third set.

Belarus extraordinary campaign merited the fifth and decisive rubber, a doubles match that could give Sasnovich and Sabalenka immortality if they were able to complete the greatest team sports achievement in their country’s history; however it wasn’t meant to be.

The conspicuous Vandeweghe and partner Shelby Rogers took the first set by 6-3, and then endured the pressure long enough in the second, coming back from 2-5 to crucially break serve three consecutive times and force the tiebreak. The dreams of a nation, the fairy-tale ending, hanged by a threat and it would evaporate when a wayward forehand from a fatigued Sasnovich collided into the netting, a celebration 17 years in the making erupting in its place after an historic performance from a surging 25-year-old star.

Defeated in 2010, well before evolving into an elite singles and doubles players and two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, CoCo Vandeweghe has come a long way since she was, simply, a promising teenager crestfallen by a loss to Italy in San Diego. Contributing with 8 total points and the maximum of 6 singles victories, an unprecedented feat since the World Group format was tweaked in 2005, Vandeweghe is now a Fed Cup legend, the perfect cherry on the top of her breakthrough WTA season.

With the Fed Cup handed out to the USA, the 2017 season for the women’s tour is officially over. Hence, attentions will now turn in full for the men, whose ATP Finals started Sunday in London right after the end of its new-fangled appetizer, the Next Generation ATP Finals.

Held in Milan for the first time, this season-ending event for the best singles players that are age 21 and under stood out particularly for the trial of a series of innovative rule changes tested for the first time in a competitive environment. The most interesting solutions included shorter sets (first to four games in each set with tie break at 3-All), no lets, no line judges  – with all calls made by Hawk-eye –  and possibility of on-court coaching and spectator movement during the match, nonetheless it’s still to be seen whether it can really increase the appeal of the game amongst sports fans.

As for the tennis, the tournament was won by Hyeon Chung, the first player from South Korea to lift an ATP Tour trophy since 2003. Victorious in all three group matches, the 21-year-old survived a tough, five set semi-final against Daniil Medvedev, and then defeated another Russian, World No. 35 Andrey Rublev, by 3-4(5) 4-3(2) 4-2 4-2 in the Final contested at the Fiera Milano.

Alpine skiing: Joy for Petra Vlhová and Felix Neureuther in Levi

Situated deep into the Arctic Circle (latitude 67.8°N), the weather in Levi is too chilling in winter for even the staunchest members of the white circus, making it impossible to hold a sporting event in Finland’s largest ski resort later in the season. Therefore, Lapland always kicks off the World Cup proceedings in respect to the most technical of the alpine disciplines, and the brightest slalom racers have gotten used to thriving from the get-go.

In 2016, ski stars Marcel Hirscher and Mikaela Shiffrin triumphed in Levi in the dawn of their winning campaigns, but they would strike out this time. We won’t know for a few months if this is a sign of things to come, but the road to retain their titles is certainly full of dangers and prospective rivals came out guns blazing for the first clash.

The World Cup venue in Levi in Finnish Lapland (Fis-Ski.com)

Shiffrin, the reigning slalom World, Olympic and World Cup Champion, once again showcased her unmatched mastery of the short skies in Levi, breezing to take the lead after the first run on Saturday, yet a sensational second leg by Slovak Petra Vlhová denied her intents of a third career victory in Finland. Racing off the blocks with a 0.21 second-disadvantage, the 22-year-old clocked 54.11s in the second turn for a combined 1:49.98 aggregated time, which Mikaela Shiffrin would miss by a tenth of a second. In Levi, the top duo was on a class of their own, with the third place finisher, Swiss Wendy Holdener, blowing past Frida Hansdotter to claim bronze some 1.25 seconds off the winners pace, nevertheless setting up a podium with the same three ladies of 2016 but in a different configuration.

The up-and-coming Vlhová, third twelve months ago, collected her third career win to push her rivals down a peg, and as consequence ascended to second in the overall classification, 10 pts behind Shiffrin, which is nice and all, but lags in comparison to the honour of naming a reindeer for the first time, the singular dividend granted to World Cup winners in Levi.

Levi Slalom winner Petra Vlhová makes new friends after collecting her prize (SITA/AP)

An amazed Vlhová wouldn’t disclose her choice in the immediate moments after the race, however the men’s victor had no such qualms. Veteran Felix Neureuther recently fathered a girl, and young Matilda will someday meet her namesake since the German skier was offered an unexpected gift in Levi.

Trailing British Dave Ryding after the first run by 0.14 seconds, Neureuther went fast in the second leg but not as much as the 30-year-old, whose advantage grew to more than half a second by the middle of the course. On a harmless left turn, though, Ryding would stumble a bit and miss the next gate, handing out to Neureuther a 13th career victory and the first since February 2016.

Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, the discipline’s 2015-16 crystal globe winner, took runner-up honours on the day while Swedish veteran Mattias Hargin posted the second best time of the second leg to grab an eight career podium and edge Swiss duo Luca Aerni and Daniel Yule, who tied for fourth, just 0.09 seconds away from a maiden podium for either man. As for the six-time overall World Cup Champion Marcel Hirscher, making a surprising appearance less than three months after breaking the left ankle in training, he was fourth at the mid-point of the event before surrendering to lack of form, concluding in 17th.

German Felix Neureuther (C) was flanked on the podium in Levi by Henrik Kristoffersen (R) and Mattias Hargin (L) (Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen via REUTERS )

The FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup returns in two weeks in North American soil. On the 25th-26th, the men will be in Lake Louise (Canada) for the inaugural downhill and Super-G events of the year, while the women tackle two technical events (GS, slalom) south of the border in Killington, Vermont.

Football: Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Croatia and Switzerland punch their tickets to Russia

The final international break of 2017 is also the ultimate opportunity to clinch a place in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, making these days a whirlwind for the national teams still in contention. From the nine open spots, five have already been claimed and the rest will be awarded until Wednesday night, so let’s take a look at the latest from World Cup qualifying.

CAF

Nigeria and Egypt, already qualified since October, met their travel companions on the weekend as the African qualifiers reached their climax.

In Group A, Tunisia knew in advance that a point was enough regardless of RD Congo’s result against Guinea, and Les Aigles de Carthage fulfilled their duties, securing a nervous goalless draw at home against neighbours Libya to return to the world stage 12 years after the last appearance.

Fellow North African side Morocco is also heading to Russia after locking down Group C with a famous victory in Abidjan. Still to concede a goal entering the last game, the Lions of the Atlas stunned the Ivory Coast in the first half when Nabil Dirar and defender Medhi Benatia scored on a five-minute blitz, and then milked the clock to guarantee a result that served their intents. Morocco will make its first World Cup appearance since France 1998, while the Ivorians miss out after three consecutive tournaments.

Filling out CAF’s five team representation, Senegal will return to the World Cup after their only previous appearance ended in the quarter-finals in 2002. Back in South Africa to play a rematch of the encounter that had been annulled by allegations of match fixing, Senegal proved stronger than the Bafana Bafana this time and took the vital three points courtesy of an own goal and a marker from striker Diafra Sakho. With the victory, they amassed 11 pts, five more than Cape Verde and Burkina Faso with a round to go.

UEFA

Four playoff series were in order to complete UEFA’s 14-team contingent, and half are already consummated.

Northern Ireland – Switzerland, 0-1 on aggregate

On what was probably Northern Ireland’s most important match in 30 years, the hosts played second fiddle to a disciplined Switzerland team that dominated the ball in Belfast and deserved more than a victory tainted by a ludicrous refereeing mistake. Xherdan Shaqiri, Haris Seferovic and Granit Xhaka wasted good opportunities, but the visitors would eventually get their breakthrough in the 58th minute, the Romanian Ovidiu Hategan somehow detecting a deliberate handball from midfielder Corry Evans after a shot from Shaqiri, and left back Ricardo Rodriguez coolly converting the penalty on the game winner.

Absent from the World Cup since 1986, Northern Ireland lacked the artifice to threaten the Swiss goal and they went into the second leg, in Basel, with the daunting task of rescuing the tie away from home. A gutsy effort in the water-drenched pitch of the St. Jakob-Park kept Michael O’Neill’s men in the fray until the final moments, but when Rodriguez cleared a ball on the goal line in injury time, their dream was over. Switzerland will be in Russia for a fourth consecutive World Cup appearance.

Croatia – Greece, 4-1 on aggregate

Deprived of defensemen Vasilis Torosidis and Kostas Manolas, Greece wilted under the pressure of a talented Croatian team to all but seal their fate after the first leg in Zagreb (4-1).

The early mistake by goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis allowed Luka Modric to open the score from the penalty spot, shortly after Nikola Kalinic augmented the advantage for the hosts, and not even Sokratis Papastathopoulos header to pull one back inspired the 2004 European Champions to a rally. Their slim hopes were engulfed by the strikes of Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric, putting the tie squarely in Croatia’s corner, and with a comfortable three-goal advantage, Zlatko Dalic’s squad entered the Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis at ease. Croatia easily managed the game in Athens, held the 0-0 and booked a trip to Russia, barely bothered by an insipid Greece that couldn’t direct a shot on goal, at home, for 87 minutes.

Since their first World Cup qualification as an independent nation (France 1998), Croatia only missed out in 2010.

Sweden – Italy, 1-0 (2nd leg on Monday)

The only former World Champion yet to book a place in Russia, Italy will have to improve dramatically from their performance in Stockholm to avoid a first absence from the World Cup final tournament since 1958.

At the Friends Arena last Friday, the Azzurri were outplayed by a plucky Swedish side aspiring to end a 12-year World Cup drought, and Jakob Johansson’s drive, deflected on the way to goal by Daniele de Rossi, was simply the materialization of it. Without the suspended Marco Verrati, Italy will have to turn around the tie at the San Siro on Monday, or Gianluigi Buffon’s 175th international cap may well be his last.

 

Denmark – Republic of Ireland, 0-0 (2nd leg on Tuesday)

The visitors from the Republic of Ireland flew to Copenhagen determined to keep the deadlock for as long as possible, and they completed their mission with success, dragging Denmark to a dreadful game of football.

Neither team looked particularly capable of engineering a goal throughout the 90 minutes at the Parken, but they’ll need to do it in Dublin, on Tuesday, if they want to avoid taking their chances on a penalty shootout. Were they to succeed and go through, Denmark would return to the World Cup after last showing up in South Africa, while Ireland’s last appearance dates back to 2002.

Inter Confederation playoffs

Honduras 0-0 Australia. New Zealand 0-0 Peru. Four teams, two matches, 0 goals.

Fans in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Wellington, New Zealand, left the stadiums frustrated by the lack of offensive entrepreneurship as their teams’ chances of going to Russia took a dip. Conversely, a home win is all that separates Australia and Peru from the objective, but you shouldn’t be surprised if things go down to the wire in the return legs to come.

Australia and Honduras drew 0-0 in the first leg of their 2018 World Cup playoff (Reuters)

On Wednesday, Sidney will stop to discover whether the Socceroos will qualify for a fourth consecutive World Cup or Honduras will make it three in a row and, a few hours later, the spotlight will shift to Lima, where the 32nd and last spot will be snatched, either by the hosts, who haven’t qualified since 1982, or the visiting Kiwis, last seen dawdling in South Africa seven years ago.

Moment of the weekend

Dave Ryding was a man on his way to history until disaster knocked him down with the same weight of a glacial blow from freezing Artic wind.

On his second slalom run in the slope of Levi (Finland), with the finish line in sight, a small skid off a turn was all it took to wreck Ryding’s perfect exhibition. The theatrical nature of slalom racing was in full display as he tumbled, and Great Britain’s wait for a maiden victory on the Alpine skiing World Cup continues.

 

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