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Alona Bondarenko - French Open 2008
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Aussies eye return to glory days

Australia has won the Fed Cup seven times, but not since 1974, when Evonne Goolagong, Dianne Fromholtz and Janet Young beat the Americans in Naples, Italy. It has, as the saying goes, been a long time between drinks.

But by virtue of their crushing 5-0 World Group Play-off defeat of Ukraine last weekend, the Aussies will be back among the elite eight nations in 2011, with a real shot at breaking the drought.

“We’ve proven to ourselves that we deserve it,” said Stosur of the team’s promotion, which comes with victory over the very side that sent them into Zone relegation in 2007.

It’s hard to argue. After all Stosur, who has won her last 13 Fed Cup matches, including a 10-match streak in singles, is a Top 10 singles player now, and in the redoubtable Rennae Stubbs the squad has a Top 10 doubles player as well.

These two key figures are backed by a diverse line-up of talents jostling for position in a squad that – perhaps most importantly of all – radiates a genuine sense of unity, home and away.

Stosur delivers; solid gold debut for Rodionova

Despite slow starts, star player Stosur ticked all the boxes with her singles wins over Mariya Koryttseva and 17-year-old Fed Cup debutante Lyudmyla Kichenok, but in fact the tempo of the tie was set before the 26-year-old even took to the court.

In the first singles match of the weekend, 27-year-old Anastasia Rodionova, an Australian citizen only since December and making her event debut, nervously lost the first seven games to stun Ukrainian No. 1 Alona Bondarenko (photo right).

Given the disparity in rankings – Bondarenko at No.25, Russian-born Rodionova at No.96 – this was quite reasonably a match the Ukrainians expected to win. The fact that they didn’t had serious ramifications, while leaving the Aussie squad in no doubt Rodionova had the heart to be one of them.

“I’ve been around a long time, playing for Australia since 1992, and I think it’s truly one of the best efforts I’ve seen,” said Stubbs. “She had a lot of responsibility on her shoulders, and I think it was good for her to look over and see us supporting her – maybe she realised that with that kind of support she can do great things.”

Molik steps in, steps up

Rodionova actually emerged from the tie with a perfect 2-0 record, partnering Stubbs to beat Kichenok and her twin Nadiya in the doubles. After Stosur clinched the tie at 3-0, Aussie captain David Taylor tapped Alicia Molik – herself a former top tenner making a successful comeback after a year out of the game – to play Koryttseva.

The 29-year-old had only narrowly missed selection as the No. 2 player. Nicole Bradtke, team coach and 1988 French Open semifinalist, advised Taylor, who missed Friday’s draw due to ash cloud travel delays, that Rodionova was moving better on the indoor clay court. But Molik, whose powerful game is perhaps more suited to faster surfaces, did her bit too.

Observed Taylor, who is also Stosur’s personal coach, and has played a similar role for Molik in the past: “You look at Alicia out there, winning a dead rubber, trying her guts out winning 7-5 in the third. I think it was a good exhibition of the team spirit that Australia has.

“I’m very, very proud of the girls, and the job that they’ve been able to do here,” he added. “To have the No. 2 and No. 3 singles players also score points… I couldn’t have asked for any more.”

Looking ahead, Taylor, who has been at the helm for five years, noted that players of the caliber of Jelena Dokic and Casey Dellacqua were waiting in the wings, with 18-year-old Olivia Rogowska knocking on the door of the Top 100.

“Finally we have options, and we’re not so reliant on one or two players,” he said. “All the teams in the World Group will be tough, but it’s an exciting time for Australian women’s tennis.”

Next sister act?

Though their World Group party is over, at least for now, the Ukrainians could take consolation in the performance of the Kichenoks, who combined as perhaps only sisters can to win the second set of the doubles against Stubbs and Rodionova in a tie-break, having earlier saved a match point.

Indeed, while the absence of 30th-ranked Kateryna Bondarenko due to a knee injury was a blow to the hosts nation’s prospects from the get-go, there is no guarantee she would have provided stiffer resistance than either Koryttseva, a thoughtful Fed Cup stalwart, or world No.279 Lyudmyla Kichenok did.

Considering Ukraine has a clutch of players ranked higher than both Kichenoks (Nadiya is in the 600s), Ukrainian captain Vlodymyr Bogdanov’s selection of the sisters had looked a tiny bit desperate. But for a while, at least, it threatened to become a masterstroke, as a fearless Lyudmyla surged to a 5-3 lead over Stosur.

The Aussies were suitably impressed: “I think Sam was taken by surprise, but what a great talent and future player for Ukraine that girl is,” said Taylor.

Asked if he ever dreamed Lyudmyla, who stepped in when Alona Bondarenko pulled out of her match against Stosur with a foot injury – would play so well, Bogdanov smiled. “I hoped she’d put on a good show out there… but I also told her not to worry about the score or the result, and to see this as only a positive experience.

“We thought Alona would give us a good start against Rodionova, but she didn’t,” he added. “These things happen.”

Certainly Ukrainian tennis has much to thank the Bondarenkos for; Alona, in particular, has borne a lot of pressure. But could the Kichenoks one day be an even bigger asset?

“I wouldn’t like to say; I wouldn’t want to offend anyone,” said Bogdanov, somewhat enigmatically.

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