Things are hotting up after Day 2’s action in the Billie Jean King Cup Finals by BNP Paribas in Prague, during which Russian Tennis Federation (RTF) brought Canada back down to earth and Australia stunned Belgium, while USA suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Slovakia and Switzerland breezed past Germany.
I don’t know whether it is just the change of dress to red and white, but it brings out something special in my game. I don’t play for myself, I play for my teammates and my country and this is the biggest pride any athlete could have. I felt it the strongest at the Olympics to represent Switzerland. For me, it brings out the best in me and it is doing so here. Belinda Bencic
Ahead of Day 3 action, Canada and Germany have already been ruled out of contention as semi-finalists as other nations continue to fight for the chance to reach the knock-out stages of the competition.
In Group A, Russia have brought 5 top-40 players to Prague and look determined to walk away with the honours as they eased past Canada, 3-0, with the loss of just one set.
The neutral team are competing at the event under the terms of the sanctions imposed on Russia linked to the doping scandal.
Daria Kasatkina swept Carol Zhao, 6-3 6-1, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova then beat Rebecca Marino, 6-4 4-6 6-2, before Veronika Kudermetova & Liudmila Samsonova dominated the doubles against Gabriela Dabrowski & Marino, 6-3 6-1.
“Having the responsibility to win the first match for your nation, and then doing so, is great,” said Kasatkina. “I was ready to be nervous, which happened, but, in the end, I was able to fight my nerves and was emotionally better, especially in the second set.
“The most important thing is to get the point for the team.”
Canada’s confidence was boosted on Monday when it upset defending champion France, but Russia proved a step too far.
“In the second set, the chances [to win] were 50-50, and I’m just happy with the third set,” said Pavlyuchenkova, the Tokyo 2020 mixed doubles gold medallist, after her match.
“Very pleased, of course, any win, especially here in this competition, is very important, and when you play in a team, the only goal for you is to win.”
Russia completes Group A against France on Wednesday, as Canada is eliminated.
In Group B, 2019 runners-up Australia opened their account by beating Belgium for the first time since 1984, 2-1, courtesy of singles wins from Storm Sanders and Daria Gavrilova.
Missing World No 1 Ash Barty in Prague, Australia relied on Gavrilova, ranked 412, who played her last competitive game at the Australian Open in February, before undergoing an Achilles tendon surgery.
The Russian-born player, however, was once ranked 20 and she returned in style, beating 70th-ranked Belgian Greet Minnen, 6-4 1-6 6-4, despite struggling with her serve at times.
Gavrilova, who saved 10 of 14 break points en route to victory, was in tears upon completion of the match as team captain Alicia Molik raced to give her a hearty hug.
Molik had placed her faith in Gavrilova, who was obviously short on match play and whose ranking has plummeted, and the gamble paid off.
“I thought the whole team, we were all training really well, so it was a really hard decision for our captain and our coaching team to make,” explained 27-year-old Gavrilova.
“Obviously it’s not that easy pulling off playing me first, after not playing for 10 months, but, I think, because they trusted and picked me, and I had the belief, it all paid off.
“I’m exhausted and really happy,” Gavrilova added. “I probably never had this much motivation in my life.”
Sanders, almost spotless on the return, then wrapped up the tie with a surprise win over Elise Mertens, 3-6 7-6(5) 6-0., converting her second match point with the last of her 35 winners.
“That was a most incredible feeling, I’m still shaking,” Sanders said. “But I played really, really well.
“We have the best team here supporting and we’re having a really great week here in Prague.
“To get the win for Australia today, we had Ajla [Tomljanovic] missing today, and for me to step up, I’m really, really proud of it.”
This was just the 6th top-20 encounter of Sanders’ career and she was 0-5 against such opposition coming into the contest, including a straight-sets loss to Mertens at Roland Garros earlier this year.
“It’s good that I played her at the French, I definitely felt like I knew what her ball feels like, and playing a Top-20 player – I haven’t had that many experiences playing Top-20 players so I definitely felt like I was confident coming out,” added the 27-year-old lefty.
There was redemption for Minnen & Mertens, who partnered up for the first time to salvage a point for Belgium in the doubles and keep their side’s chances alive in the competition.
Mertens, who is the World No 1 in doubles, combined with her compatriot to defeat Aussie pair Sanders & Ellen Perez, 6-2 6-4.
The fate of Group B will now go down to the wire, and will be decided after Australia take on Belarus on Thursday.
Belgium, the 2001 champions, defeated Belarus 2-1 on Monday.
“Our plan is to hope that Belarus is going to win, and then we might have a chance to go through,” said Minnen with a smile. “No, I wish both teams the best of luck and we will see on Thursday how it goes.”
Group C saw Slovakia pull off a stunning 2-1 upset win over the USA, who are without their top-4 players and reliant on Danielle Collins and Shelby Rogers to steer the 18-times champions to victory, while the highest-ranked player in the Slovakian squad is ranked 83, in Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.
The teams split the singles matches, with Viktoria Kuzmova up-ending Rogers, 6-4 6-4, before Collins levelled the tie with a 6-3 6-2 victory over Schmiedlova.
“It was a little bit nerve breaking, I knew if I lost the match we would have lost the tie,” Collins admitted later.
It came down to the deciding doubles, in which the Slovak pairing of Kuzmova & Tereza Mihalikova displayed nerves of steel to beat Caroline Dolehide & Coco Vandeweghe, 6-2 6-7(5) [12-10].
In the thrilling encounter, Kuzmova & Mihalikova led most of the way, but the American pair came back just in time to ensure a match tiebreak.
The Slovaks led 8-4 but the Americans offered another come-back and earned a match point at 10-9 before the Slovaks finally prevailed to take the rubber and the tie.
Kuzmova & Mihalikova had narrowly lost a match tiebreak against Spain on Monday.
“Yesterday it was very, very close so, today, we said ‘it’s not going to happen again’,” said Mihalikova. “We’re happy we got the win.”
Kuzmova also gained the only point Slovakia captured in a 2-1 loss to Spain on Monday.
“I feel great here,” she added. “I like to play for Slovakia, it gives me so much more strength than at the other tournaments.”
The Americans will have to now beat Group C rivals Spain to have any chance of progressing to the semi-finals.
In Group D, Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic and Viktorija Golubic won both singles matches on the way to a 3-0 win that eliminated Germany from contention.
Golubic first defeated Andrea Petkovic, 6-4 7-5, before Bencic, the Tokyo Olympics champion, rallied to overcome Angelique Kerber, 5-7 6-2 6-2, to seal the tie.
“I’m very happy and very relieved to get the first point for Switzerland,” Golubic said. “It was a very tough second set so I’m very happy to close it out.”
Later, Bencic, who ended her rubber with 2 aces against a resigned Kerber, said: “I’m happy I fought back after the first set, I think, it was really close. I’m happy I pulled it through.”
Golubic & Jil Teichmann then swept past Anna-Lena Friedsam & Nastasja Mariana Schunk, 6-1 6-2, in the final doubles.
While this was the end of the road for Germany, the Swiss now face a winner-takes-all clash with hosts Czech Republic on Thursday, with the victors finishing at the top of Group D and sealing a place in the semi-finals.
“I’m looking forward to Thursday, we’re all looking forward to Thursday,” Bencic added.
Bencic relishes playing for her country, frequently saying that national service elevates her level of performance.
“I don’t know whether it is just the change of dress to red and white, but it brings out something special in my game,” said Bencic. “I don’t play for myself, I play for my teammates and my country and this is the biggest pride any athlete could have.
“I felt it the strongest at the Olympics to represent Switzerland. For me, it brings out the best in me and it is doing so here.”
The tussle with Czech Republic could well involve another high-octane clash for Bencic against World No 3 Barbora Krejcikova, the duo having met in the summer at the Olympic Games, with Bencic prevailing 1-6 6-2 6-3.
“What can you have bigger in tennis than to play the biggest names on the biggest courts? It is what you work for and what I have worked for all my life,” added Bencic.
“For sure, in this moment, I don’t realise it but before and after I am very excited and it is my dream come true. I am looking forward to Thursday, we all are. We hear that it is sold out. The O2 Arena sold out, it cannot get better.
“I hope the atmosphere will be great. I hope this atmosphere will help us and I will use it. Even if they cheer for the opponent, it will help us to perform and to give our best.”
The Bille Jean King Cup is a rebranded version of the Fed Cup, dubbed the world cup of women’s tennis, with the 12 teams in the finals divided into 4 groups of 3 teams, from which only the group winners advance to the semi-finals on Friday for the chance to play the championship tie on Saturday.
Day 2 Results
Group A – Russian Tennis Federation defeated Canada 3-0
- Daria Kasatkina (RTF) d. Carol Zhao (CAN) 6-3 6-1
- Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RTF) d. Rebecca Marino (CAN) 6-4 4-6 6-2
- Veronika Kudermetova/Liudmila Samsonova (RTF) d. Gabriela Dabrowski/Rebecca Marino (CAN) 6-3 6-1
Group B – Australia defeated Belgium 2-1
- Daria Gavrilova (AUS) d. Greet Minnen (BEL) 6-4 1-6 6-4
- Storm Sanders (AUS) d. Elise Mertens (BEL) 3-6 7-6(5) 6-0
- Elise Mertens/Greet Minnen (BEL) d. Ellen Perez/Storm Sanders (AUS) 6-2 6-4
Group C – Slovakia defeated USA 2-1
- Viktoria Kuzmova (SVK) d. Shelby Rogers (USA) 6-4 6-4
- Danielle Collins (USA) d. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (SVK) 6-3 6-2
- Viktoria Kuzmova/Tereza Mihalikova (SVK) d. Caroline Dolehide/CoCo Vandeweghe (USA) 6-2 6-7(5) [12-10]
Group D – Switzerland defeated Germany 3-0
- Viktorija Golubic (SUI) d. Andrea Petkovic (GER) 6-4 7-5
- Belinda Bencic (SUI) d. Angelique Kerber (GER) 7-5 2-6 6-2
- Viktorija Golubic/Jil Teichmann (SUI) d. Anna-Lena Friedsam/Nastasja Schunk (GER) 6-1 6-2