Slovenia complete miraculous comeback to seal Finals berth16/04/2023 00:00
A doubles victory for Kaja Juvan and Tamara Zidansek completed an incredible recovery for Slovenia against Romania, with the Slovenians securing a place at the 2023 Billie Jean King Cup Finals
When Ana Bogdan stepped up to serve for the match against Tamara Zidansek just before one o’clock on Saturday afternoon, Slovenian tennis fans could have been forgiven for resigning themselves to a defeat in which their team had performed creditably but ultimately come up short against the talented visiting side from Romania.
Surely nobody could have foreseen that, a little over 24 hours hence, Zidansek, Kaja Juvan, captain Andrej Kresevac and the rest of the Slovenian squad would be cavorting around the court, with Slovenian fans dancing in the stands and ‘We Are The Champions’ blaring from the speakers. Victory – and a place in the 2023 Billie Jean King Cup by Gainbridge Finals – was theirs.
Zidansek and Juvan were responsible for what seemed the unlikeliest of comebacks – firstly winning their singles matches (Zidansek’s a three-set epic against Bogdan, Juvan’s a more routine straight sets win against Jaqueline Adina Cristian) to level the tie at 2-2 on Saturday, before teaming up in doubles to defeat Irina Maria Bara and Monica Niculescu 4-6 6-2 6-4 in a match that began on Saturday and resumed on Sunday after poor weather had stopped play the previous evening.
Such a comeback is a rare occurrence in the Billie Jean King Cup. Slovenia’s triumph represents just the eighth time in the competition’s history that a team has recovered from 0-2 down to win, and the first time it has happened in more than eight years, when France came back from the brink to defeat Italy 3-2 in February 2015.
“I just feel very proud of the whole team because we were in a completely lost situation and we managed to fight and it showed a lot of character from all of us,” a beaming Zidansek enthused after the doubles match. “The ones that were on the bench supporting us… they have all lost their voices! We have an incredible team spirit and we have a lot of fun and I think that's what showed on the court.” I'm really, really happy that we managed to win.”
Four of the five matches in this tie went the distance, including the doubles clash that was concluded on Sunday. Resuming at 3-3 in the first set, the Romanian team began stronger, winning three of the opening four games of the day to take the lead and move, once again, to the brink of a place in the Finals.
But, after all their efforts in singles on Saturday, Juvan and Zidansek were never going to allow a Romanian procession to victory. The Slovenians won four consecutive games from 2-2 in the second set and, a full 48 hours after the tie had begun, it would all come down to a one-set doubles shoot-out.
To their great credit, Bara and Niculescu did not let the boisterous home crowd nor the increasingly-difficult conditions affect their game. The Romanian pair gained a narrow advantage in the decider, breaking both Juvan’s and Zidansek’s serves early on – but on each occasions they were pegged back straight away, with the Slovenians recovering the break.
Holding serve in the swirling wind began to seem more of a challenge than breaking serve – meaning that Juvan’s hold to move 4-3 ahead looked as though it would be crucial. Indeed, the Slovenians broke Bara in the next game to move within a game of victory and, while Zidansek could not serve out at 5-3, they broke again with Niculescu serving to wrap up a famous triumph.
“From the moment that Tamara came back and she won the match [against Bogdan on Saturday], and she pulled through, I knew that we have to take the chance,” Juvan reflected. “I was, I think, flying on the adrenaline yesterday and, and then the rain delay. There were a lot of things that were like unusual but today was a really great atmosphere. I trusted Tamara and it was just a really positive energy the whole match.”
The win comes just a few days after Juvan announced on social media that she would take a step back from the tour over the coming months, following the death of her father at the end of last year.
“I mean, it's been a really weird period, a really hard period,” she said. “And actually, when we won against China [in the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Play-offs in November], those were the two last matches that my dad watched me play. So I think those two matches felt like the most important matches of my life. And it's been very challenging since then, to really find the same spirit and motivation.
“I think this was the weekend that actually a little bit reminded me of the same way that I was fighting, like the last time we played [against China in November]. And I think it means even more to me than maybe it normally would. That's why I was so emotional, also with my mum, with my brother. I think always after the after the hard period, you appreciate the nice moments even more.”
An impressive performance indeed. So impressive, in fact, that Slovenian captain Andrej Kresevac could barely absorb it.
“It's hard to say [how I’m feeling]. Ask again in an hour!” he joked afterwards. “I will have to sleep and then I want to think about it… but yeah, unbelievable. It’s amazing, from 0-2 down to 3-2. And the crowd was today really unbelievable.”
His Romanian counterpart was sanguine in defeat. While nobody could have predicted the drama that would unfold, Horia Tecau had said from the outset that he expected the tie to be a close one.
“We kind of knew going into the tie in these heavy, slow conditions that it was going to be a fight,” he said. “The first day, Slovenia could have been up 2-0. We were up 2-0 then we had opportunity in the third singles. I think the fourth singles match was the one that Slovenia played much better than us. The doubles was also a very, very close match.
“The only thing that we were focusing on was to execute and to fight, execute and stay positive till the end. I think the Slovenian team was able to do that a little better than us towards towards the end of the matches. That's what I feel was the difference. They were able to stay a little bit more composed, more positive, regardless of the score. They got the win so congrats to them.”
The disappointment of this weekend’s result notwithstanding, Tecau will be able to take many positives from his team’s performance in Koper. Having ended a run of defeats with victory over Hungary in last year’s Play-offs, the Romanians will look to regroup, record another Play-offs win in November and return to the Qualifiers next season.
For Slovenia, the next destination is the Billie Jean King Cup Finals. And Juvan, Zidansek and Kresevac were all keen to underline what an achievement that was for a nation like theirs.
“It's pretty unbelievable because our country is so small,” Juvan said. “There's only 2 million of us, so I think it's unbelievable that the Slovenian tennis is on such a high level. When I started playing BJK Cup, like five, six years ago, we were in the second group [Europe/Africa Group II]. It's been a slow process, and suddenly we're in the Finals.”
Small they may be, but, after their exploits this weekend, nobody will be writing the Slovenians off in November.