Britain’s Katie Boulter is making quite a name for herself these days and continued her good form by leading Great Britain’s charge on Day 1 of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Europe/Africa Zone Group 1 at the University of Bath on Wednesday.
It wasn’t easy, but Jo’s the ultimate pro. She’s focused, she’s been there, she knows how to do it. With someone like her, you have to respect that she knows what she’s doing. Anne Keothavong
Even had veteran Heather Watson, on the sidelines due to illness, been available to play, Captain Anne Keothavong would probably have selected Boulter in any case as she is now ranked some 27 places higher than her Guernsey team mate.
Boulter scored an impressive straight sets win over Kaja Juvan from Slovenia earning a valuable first point on her debut in the Fed Cup and getting Great Britain off to the perfect start.
Playing in Pool A, 22-year old Boulter started a little nervously as she struggled to hold her opening service delivery, but soon settled, taking her first break point of the match to forge ahead in game 5, and then held easily for the rest of the set to clinch it 6-4.
The second showed the World No 83’s growing prowess as she turned up the pressure on her Slovenian opponent, clinically finishing off the points at the net and using her groundstrokes to punishing effect.
Her efforts earned her an important 6-4 6-2 win on her Fed Cup debut, setting the tone for her team mates.
She positively beamed as she thanked the crowd at the University of Bath for their raucous support.
“I think I’m someone who rises to the occasion,” Boulter said afterwards. “I think the support makes a huge difference.
“It is the little things like that, which really go in your favour and give you the confidence to go after your shots.”
Boulter said that making her Fed Cup singles debut had been better than she expected, adding: “I’d thought about this moment for a very long time. Just being part of the team last year and being around everyone really made me want to play here.”
Boulter is now one of four British women aged between 19 and 22 who are in the top 200, which augers well for women’s tennis in this country.
“I thought Katie Boulter was brilliant, making her singles debut in front of a home crowd and getting the win, that’s something special,” commented Keothavong.
“Once she got through those first few games, she managed to settle and she was the stronger player. She’s improved so much over the past 12 months and I really believe 2019 will be a special year for her.”
British No 1 Johanna Konta did not make her match against Dalila Jakupovic look as easy, eventually winning a tense first set in the tiebreak players struggled for consistency.
Tamara Zidansek, Slovenia’s leading player, is not here this week, so Jakupovic is their lead singles player in her absence and the world No 86 pushed Konta hard in a 78-minute opening set.
In a sign of things to come, the Briton dropped her serve in game three, but broke back immediately by winning a marathon game that lasted over ten minutes.
Konta moved up 4-2 with another break as the partisan crowd visibly relaxed, but the tension wracked up again as when the Brit meekly surrendered her advantage in the very next game.
The rest of the set was a mixture of stunning winners and puzzling errors, prompting four consecutive breaks from 4-4 into a tie-break at 6-all.
Konta’s fate seemed sealed when she fell 4-1 and 6-3 behind, handing the Slovenian three set points, but she held her nerve sufficiently to hustle Jakupovic into a couple of errors to draw level at 6-6.
The Slovenian saved a set point at 6-7, but the Briton took her second opportunity to win the tiebreak, 9-7, with a thumping forehand into a corner.
The second set was a far more straightforward affair as the World No 39 stamped her authority on the match by making her greater fire power tell.
Konta shook off any remaining nerves and gained in confidence, twice breaking Jakupovic to love to lead 4-1.
The Slovenian offered some resistance in the remaining games but it was too little, too late as the Briton wrapped up the set, taking Britain to an unassailable 2-0 win over Slovenia with a comprehensive 6-4(7) 6-4 win.
“Jo did a great job to come through that first set,” Keothavong said afterwards.
“It wasn’t easy, but Jo’s the ultimate pro. She’s focused, she’s been there, she knows how to do it. With someone like her, you have to respect that she knows what she’s doing.
“It’s important for me when I sit there that I don’t say too much, to allow my emotions to get the better of me and everything that’s going on. She closed out the match and she came through strong in that second set.”
Points are important at this stage of the Fed Cup but a dead rubber is also a good opportunity to give young players valuable experience.
With the tie essentially over, Katie Swan and Harriet Dart took to the court to face Jakupovic and Juvan in the doubles.
Buoyed by their teammates’ victories, the British pair produced an excellent display to beat the Slovenian pair 6-2 6-2 in just under 90 minutes.
Swan was playing her first Fed Cup Doubles rubber and Dart was taking part in her first Fed Cup match of any kind, but neither showed any sign of nerves as they raced into a 5-0 lead.
The Slovenians then gained a foothold by winning the next two games, and they briefly raised hopes of an unlikely fightback when they earned two break points in game 8.
The Britons, however, brushed off the late challenge to hold on and clinch the set 6-2.
The second set followed a similar pattern, as Swan and Dart went a double break up, only for Jakupovic and Juvan to peg them back to 4-2 once more.
The British pair were in no mood for a lengthy set, though, and they broke the Slovenians again, winning a lengthy 8th game on serve to finish off the match and take home the tie 3-0.
Colin Fleming has been speaking about being accepted into the new set up with the British Fed Cup Team as coach.
“It’s been great. All the players have been open to me joining the set up,” said Fleming. “I’m honoured to have joined up and to help Anne Keothavong, to support the doubles teams we’re putting out there”.
“When I was a player I absolutely loved being part of the Davis Cup, they were highlights for me.
“I absolutely thrived on team environments and team set-ups and I like to think that I bring a strong energy and positivity to that environment so it was a no-brainer for me to join up with the Fed Cup team and help with them to try and succeed.”
“The key thing is people, it’s relationships, it’s communication, it’s working with the team to do whatever I can. If it means picking up cones, then I’m happy to do it,” he added.
It will take four wins in four days if Britain are to give themselves a chance to escape Group One, the third tier of the competition.
In the past six years, Britain have made it to the World Group II play-off only to fall agonisingly at the final hurdle.
Next up is Greece, who are likely to present a tough challenge, especially for Konta, who will face Maria Sakkari.
Konta beat Sakkari in the second round on her way to the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2017 but she knows the Greek is likely to present a bigger challenge this time round.
“She has been playing great tennis, especially the last 12 months,” Konta said.
“I have a lot of respect for her on and off the court. She is fundamentally a great person and a great player. I am looking forward to playing her.
“The last time we played was in Wimbledon in 2017. A lot has happened since then. It is another opportunity for me to play a great player.”
On Court 1, however, Hungary enjoyed a surprise Pool A win over Greece, despite the Greeks fielding the second highest-ranked player at the event in the World No 38.
Hungary’s Dalma Galfi beat Valentini Grammatikopoulou 6-0 6-3 to put her nation in front, Sakkari outplayed Anna Bondar 6-3 6-2 to level the tie before Galfi and Reka-Luca Jani teamed up to earn Hungary the win by beating Sakkari and Despina Papamichail 6-3 6-4 in the deciding doubles.
In early Pool B action, the Serbs were the first team to get a win on the board when they beat Georgia 2-1, while Croatia came through a deciding doubles to edge past Turkey by the same scoreline.
The Croats had to come from 1-0 down after Turkish No 2 Cagla Buyukakcay beat her opposite number Ana Konjuh 7-5 2-6 6-3 in the opening singles.
The highest-ranked player in Bath, World No 25 Donna Vekic, got the Croats back on track when she edged past a stubborn Pemra Ozgen 7-6(0) 6-3 before Jana Fett and Darija Jurak were just a bit too good for Buyukakcay and Ozgen in the doubles 6-4 6-4.
“It’s very intense and very difficult and we’ve been in this format for many many years and I’m just hoping we can get out of it finally,” said Croatia’s captain Iva Majoli, a former French Open champion and World No 4.
“These other teams have nothing to lose and the girls play at a better level than they often produce at regular tournaments. We have to be 200 per cent ready for these matches.”
Vekic, a finalist in St Petersburg last week, has enjoyed some of her best results on British soil in the past having won one of her two WTA titles in Nottingham in 2017 as well as reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon last summer.
She also picked up a $10,000 ITF trophy in Chiswick back in 2011.
“Oh my God yes, that was maybe my first professional tournament win,” she said. “I do like playing in England, it does feel a little bit like home for me and I do like a bit of Nando’s as well!”
Serbia cruised past Georgia by winning both singles when Ivana Jorovic beat Mariam Bolkvadze 6-3 6-1 and Olga Danilovic was too good for an injured Ekaterine Gorgodze 7-5 6-3.
The Georgians took the doubles when Bolkvadze and Oksana Kalashnikova beat Danilovic and Jorovic 6-3 7-5.
Thursday starts with Croatia and Georgia meeting on Centre Court at 10am while Serbia play Turkey on Court 1.
In the afternoon session at 4.30pm Great Britain take on Greece and Hungary go up against Slovenia.
Fans can watch the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Europe/Africa Zone Group 1 from 6-9 February 6-9 live on British television at BT Sport 2.
As an additional bonus for tennis fans, all matches will be streamed live on the British Tennis Facebook page: https://en-gb.facebook.com/britishtennislta/ .