After an absence of 26 years, the Fed Cup is being held in Great Britain from Wednesday in Bath and the coming three days.
The last time Britain hosted the Fed Cup was in 1993, when a team led by Clare Wood ran through five successive 3-0 victories against Russia, Turkey and Ukraine at the Nottingham Tennis Centre.
It’s a tough week and the format is incredibly tough but we’ve been able to come out of this group on a number of occasions. I see this week as no different except that we will have that extra support and I’m looking forward to experiencing that as a captain. We’ve prepared as well as we can. Our expectations are high. Our goal as a team is to be part of the World Group. Anne Keothavong
“The main thing I remember is how cold it was in Nottingham that May,” Wood, who is now Wimbledon’s assistant referee, told Simon Briggs of The Telegraph.
“We were playing outdoors, and we kept winning the matches in double-quick time because we just wanted to get back inside!” she recalled.
“What happened next was that Jo [Durie] came back for the World Group match with Spain, who fielded a pair of slam champions in Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.
“On clay, it was a massacre: I think we won one set all weekend. It shows just how harsh the Fed Cup can be.”
The upshot was that Great Britain slipped straight back into the marsh of the Zonal competition and have played in 14 different countries since, ranging from Estonia to Israel, Portugal to Argentina without making much of an impression.
Now, over a quarter of a century later, Captain of the host nation, Anne Keothavong, is lining up a squad with a real chance of a place in April’s World Group II play-offs alongside Croatia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey in the eight-nation Europe/Africa Zone Group I.
The eight teams are split into two pools of four with the pool winners competing against one another on Saturday to get their names in the hat for the play-off draw.
Each team competes in three round robin ties during the first three days of action with each tie consisting of two singles and a doubles.
Those April World Group II play-offs have been cruel to the British over recent years.
Four times in seven years they have come up just short, most recently last April when they lost to Japan 3-2 despite being up 2-1 in the best-of-five-rubber tie, and despite leading by a set in the deciding doubles.
This year, Keothavong’s team of two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist and World No 39 Johanna Konta, the fast-rising world No 83 Katie Boulter, the experienced Heather Watson as well as youngsters Harriet Dart and Katie Swan looks to have the greatest strength in depth of all the nations assembled at the University of Bath venue.
Plus, GB is the only team to have two top-100 singles players among their ranks.
“We came close last year and it’s a credit to these players that they come back again,” said Keothavong.
“We have a shared goal, a shared purpose. The fact that they want to go on this journey together and have another opportunity, another shot, of making it into the World Group, is credit to all of them that they’re prepared to put themselves on the line and do it all over again.”
Great Britain’s first task is to come through their Pool A round robin matches against Slovenia, Greece and Hungary on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday respectively and into Saturday’s showdown with the best team from Pool B.
A few days ago it looked like Hungary might be the hosts’ greatest threat but they have arrived without their highest-ranked singles player and doubles World No 3 Timea Babos or their next best player in Fanny Stollar.
Instead, Greece look to be Great Britain’s most dangerous obstacle during the opening days, led by World No 38 Maria Sakkari, who beat Jelena Ostapenko at the recent Australian Open.
Pool B features Croatia, Georgia, Serbia and Turkey with the Croats boasting World No 25 Donna Vekic, the highest-ranked player at the event this week, who travels to Bath after beating Petra Kvitova en route to Sunday’s final at the WTA Premier event in St Petersburg.
The opening day’s play on Wednesday is split into two sessions with Serbia taking on Georgia and Croatia facing Turkey in the morning session at 10am.
The afternoon’s action kicks off at 4.30pm with Great Britain starting their week against Slovenia on Centre Court, while Hungary and Greece meet on Court 1.
Keothavong believes the nature of having a different nation to negotiate every day and that the high-intensity format of two singles and a doubles deciding each tie makes for a mental challenge like no other.
“I don’t know how to explain the stress and emotions we all feel as a team to get through a week like this – it takes a lot out of the players and that shouldn’t be underestimated,” Keothavong said.
“It’s a tough week and the format is incredibly tough but we’ve been able to come out of this group on a number of occasions. I see this week as no different except that we will have that extra support and I’m looking forward to experiencing that as a captain.
“We’ve prepared as well as we can. Our expectations are high. Our goal as a team is to be part of the World Group. This is the start of a journey we’re on together, we all share the same goal and I have every bit of faith and belief in my players.”
For Konta, it was a luxury to be able to drive down the M4 to an event, and it will be nothing like her historic, narrow loss to 2017 Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza at the Australian Open last month.
Finishing that match at 3.15am, Melbourne time, after 2 hours 42 minutes of enthralling play, was arguably Konta’s best performance since Wimbledon that same year.
“I had to recover a couple of days after that,” she admitted. “Obviously it’s worse if you lose a match than if you win.
“It was a bit odd. There were a lot of good things to take from the Australia trip. I had two great matches in Melbourne. Fed Cup is a bit different, the emotions, the vibe is very different.”
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/.
LTA Chief Executive Scott Lloyd said: “We are excited to partner with BT Sport in bringing the Fed Cup closer to fans for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.
“BT Sport are already home of the WTA and it seems only fitting they should follow our Fed Cup journey as we aim to get back into the world group.
“I am also delighted to confirm that we will stream all matches from Centre Court during the week on our Facebook page.
“This initiative forms a key part of our new strategy to open up tennis by showcasing our women’s team and bringing world-class tennis to new and existing British fans.”