Great Britain are well poised for a memorable win over Mexico in the Billie Jean Cup after team stalwarts Heather Watson and Katie Boulter got past their nerves to win the opening two rubbers at the National Tennis Centre on Friday.
In the second set I started to feel more comfortable, I came into the net more.I’m feeling very happy and I can’t wait for tomorrow. It means a lot to me, I've played ten years now and made myself available for every tie I've been available for, and that will continue. Heather Watson
Boulter had the honour of opening proceedings against Marcela Zacarias, who is ranked just 6 places above her.
Back in action after her impressive performances at the Copper Box against Kazakhstan, Boulter is making her comeback after a suffering a stress fracture in her back during that tie in April 2019.
She has since dropped from a career-high World ranking of No 82 to No 291, but is showing signs of a revival, defeated Coco Gauff and taking a set off Naomi Osaka at the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne.
Zacarias was quick off the mark, breaking Boulter in the first game before Boulter steadied her nerves and, although the pair traded breaks once more, the Brit broke to take the first set.
From there it was one-way traffic on the scoreboard as Boulter denied the Mexican any further games, albeit needing 3 match points to get over the line.
“Initially I was a little bit nervous,” Boulter admitted after the match. “It was a really close first set and I managed to squeeze it through and that really helped me relax and so, going into the second set, I played some really good tennis.”
Played behind closed doors, the tie has an eerie atmosphere which both teams are doing their best to combat by cheering their players on in stark contrast to the electric atmosphere at the Copper Box which was packed with 11,000 fans.
The only accompaniment in Roehampton on Friday was the cheers of a few team-mates and the taps on the laptops of the few permitted media.
The players are used to such conditions now,
“We’ve been playing in front of no-one every week, sometimes it can feel a little eerie,” Boulter admitted. “It was normal to feel some nerves, I was stressed a bit.
“This competition is still a totally different environment and it brings out the best in me.”
Together she and Watson have made light of the absence of the British No 1, Jo Konta, who declined to play due to worries over abruptly switching from hard to clay courts.
The competition brings the best out of Watson too who, in the second match of the day, won by an almost identical score-line as the British No 2 traded breaks with Giuliana Olmos before finding her range and sealing a 7-5 first set, and then taking control of the second set.
“In the second set I started to feel more comfortable, I came into the net more,” she said. “I’m feeling very happy and I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
It was the Channel Islander’s 30th win representing GB in the event and, amazingly, her first one ever at home, testament to the historic succession of away fixtures.
“It means a lot to me, I’ve played ten years now and made myself available for every tie I’ve been available for, and that will continue,” said Watson.
Team GB goes into Saturday 2-0 up, when the reverse singles with the two No 1 players facing off against each other, and the two No 2 players and a final doubles to break any deadlock.
Unless there is a team change, Watson will go up against Zacarias and the win will see Great Britain advancing to the Qualifiers for the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Finals.
If required Boulter would face Olmos, with doubles as the final chance for the hosts to book their spot in next year’s finals.
Team captain Anne Keothavong had called this a ‘must-win’ tie, and was more than happy with the day’s outcome.
“I don’t think I could have asked for anything more,” she said. “It was a fantastic performance from Katie and Heather.
“Both came through tough first sets but, once they were able to relax and find their groove, they finished strong and that’s what matters.”
The action begins on Saturday with the first match at 11.30am. The teams will be observing the national minute’s silence at 3pm, for the funeral of HRH The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh.
You can watch the action via the BBC Red Button on Friday & iPlayer, the LTA’s Website and YouTube Channel as well live streaming via Tik-Tok, the first-ever live sporting event broadcast on this medium in the UK.
A total of 16 nations are competing in the Billie Jean King Cup By BNP Paribas this weekend. Here are some of the other results.
Latvia 2 / India 0
Anastasija Sevastova and Jelena Ostapenko won their opening singles matches against respective Indian opponents Karman Kaur Thandi and Ankita Raina to give Latvia the perfect start to their play-off tie in Jurmala.
Latvian No. 1 Sevastova, ranked 47, posted a straightforward 6-4 6-0 win over the tall, hard-hitting Thandi, ranked No. 691, but earlier, Ostapenko was made to grind out a 6-2 5-7 7-5 win over Raina in a match that contained lots of forced and unforced errors, mainly from the home favourite.
“I’m not happy with the game at all,” Ostapenko admitted. “Just happy with the way I fought.
“I managed to play not my best and won this game and brought my team the point. But in general it was tough to play her.”
Raina gave her all in an extremely close defeat while Karman Kaur Thandi too fought her heart out before losing as India trailed 0-2 on the opening day.
Competing outside the zonal competition for the first time, India will now have to win all 3 matches on Saturday — two reverse singles and a doubles — if they have to advance to the Qualifiers, while defeat will push them back to Asia/Oceania zone.
Romania 0 / Italy 2
Italy leads 2-0 over Romania in Cluj-Napoca, giving Monica Niculesu’s tenure as captain, and Romania’s most successful player in the competition, an uphill battle.
This tie was always set to be a tough ask for the hosts after their top singles players, Simona Halep and Patricia Maria Tig, to injury shortly beforehand.
World No 111 Elisabetta Cocciaretto beat debutant Irina Bara 6-1 6-4 to give Italy a 1-0 lead in the first tie, and was followed by last year’s Roland Garros quarter-finalist Martina Trevisan, who battled past Mihaela Buzarnescu, 6-2 2-6 7-6(-5) after 3 hours and 7 minutes and saving two match points.
“I fought for every ball, even if I did not feel very well in the latter stages of the match. This fighting spirit brought me the victory,” said Trevisan.
“It was my debut in the Romanian team, and unfortunately I couldn’t do more,” lamented Bara afterwards. “Her game didn’t surprise me and I had a good preparation.
“It would have been better if I had the chance to play the second match of the day, but that’s it.”
Canada 2 / Serbia 0
Team Canada got big wins from Leylah Fernandez and Rebecca Marino over Serbia to put them on the brink of advancing.
It was the perfect start when Fernandez needed three sets to beat Olga Danilovic, 7-5 4-6 6-4, while Rebecca Marino got the second win in another tight two set victory over Nina Stojanovic, 6-4 7-6.
After her match, Fernandez said she needs to work on for her next match on Saturday.
“I made one too many mistakes on the forehand, backhand, drop shots, volleys just like every match I got to improve but I’m happy I got the win”
Marino said: “It was frustrating and exciting at the same time to constantly break serve but constantly be broken, you have to hang in tough sets like that, she’s a great player, I knew if I kept trying and doing my best no matter what I might be able to squeak it through and that’s kinda what happened.”
Poland 1 / Brazil 1
Laura Pigossi’s three-set victory against Urszula Radwanska left Brazil level with Poland at the end of the first day in Bytom.
The Brazilian 26-year-old defied a ranking gap of nearly 100 places to overcome a stubborn Radwanska, who was making her first appearance in the competition since 2015, and record a 7-6(9) 3-6 6-2 win in 2 hours 51 minutes.
Earlier, Magdalena Frech defeated Carolina Meligeni Rodrigues Alves, 6-4 6-3, to give Poland an early lead.
“It’s a great feeling to play for the national team in the Billie Jean King Cup,” Pigossi said later. “I’m glad that I finally managed to play a singles match.
“It was a very hard and long match, but I am so glad that I won. I will never forget this match.”
The result denied Radwanska a dream return to the competition after 6 years away, but the former World No 29 took heart from her performance in the second set.
“Of course, there is a great dissatisfaction, because I wanted to win, but still I am glad that I could play for Poland again,” Radwanska said later.
Argentina 1 / Kazakstan 1
Argentina and Kazakhstan finished an oppressively hot Friday level in Cordoba.
In the first match, Argentina No 1 Nadia Podoroska fell to Yulia Putintseva, 2-6 6-4 6-0, after leading 3-1 in the second set, and then Lourdes Carle picked up the biggest win of her career by overcoming Elena Rybakina, 6-4 3-6 6-0.
As is so often the case in Billie Jean King Cup or Davis Cup play, ranking meant nothing in the contest between Rybakina and Carle, with the Argentine ranked some 407 places lower than her Kazakh opponent.
And yet Carle finished having a ‘huge upset’ on an afternoon full of sunshine.
“Never before have I had a feeling like this on a tennis court, not once in my life,” explained Carle. “Today was a perfect match and I think my forehand and, at times, my serve were the best they have ever been on a court.”
Podoroska lost 10 games in a row and in so doing made life very difficult for herself against Putintseva, who began to hit deeper and hit drop shots, which hurt her opponent, figuratively if not physically.
“Half-way through the second set the match fell into place for me,” said Putintseva. “I made some changes to my game that made things difficult for my opponent.”
Meanwhile Podoroska admitted to feeling nervous and ended up devastated because she ‘had a moment of not playing with intensity’.
Netherlands 1 / China, PR 1
The Netherlands and China, P.R. are tied at 1-1 after a couple of impressive performances by Kiki Bertens and Wang Xiyu in ’s-Hertogenbosch.
A long awaited victory for Bertens gave the Netherlands the much-desired 1-0 advantage after the Dutch No 1 notched her first match win since Roland Garros last year by quickly moving past 19-year-old BJK Cup debutant and World No 146 Wang Xinyu, 6-2 6-0.
Bertens underwent (left) achilles surgery in October 2020, soon after her fourth round exit in Paris, and didn’t return to the tour until March 2021.
“I really needed this win. Practice has been good, but it’s worth very little when you don’t win matches. So I’m happy for myself as well as for the team,” Bertens declared afterwards.
Bertens improved her already stunning Billie Jean King Cup singles record to 21-2.
World No 83 Arantxa Rus had the opportunity to bring the Netherlands another step closer to the Qualifiers when she faced fellow lefty Wang Xiyu in the second match on Friday, but the 20-year-old from the visiting team had other plans.
The Chinese youngster, also a debutant here, overpowered her 30-year-old opponent in the first set, was pegged back in the second, and regained the upper hand in the third, reeled off 4 games in a row for a 4-1 lead before winning, 6-1 3-6 6-2
After receiving treatment for cramps, Wang Xiyu appeared for her press conference, where she denied injury worries.
“I feel much better after recovery, it’s okay. I think I played very well today. She is a great player and I did very well in all the details and was able to focus on every point.”
Ukraine 2 / Japan 0
Elina Svitolina chalked up the first point of the Billie Jean King Cup era, rebranded last year from its previous guise of Fed Cup, .
The historic moment was not lost on Svitolina, who together with rising star Marta Kostyuk fired Ukraine to within touching of victory over Japan and a place in next year’s Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifiers.
“Scoring the first point of the Billie Jean King Cup era is a special feeling and hopefully there are many more to come for Ukraine, but for sure it is a special feeling for me,” said world No. 5 Svitolina.
“It’s very inspiring because I really admire Billie Jean and she has done so much for our sport and it couldn’t be better that this competition has been named after her.”
Svitolina’s happy homecoming was never in doubt and she duly posted a regulation 6-3 6-2 victory over Chihiro Muramatsu to ensure Ukraine made the perfect start to proceedings.
The baton then passed to rising star Kostyuk, Ukraine’s other top 100 player, and the teenager had the opportunity to propel Ukraine into a commanding, if not yet unassailable, lead, defeating Japan’s No 1 player Yuki Naito, 6-3 6-3.
“This is not just my win but a win for the whole country and it’s an amazing feeling,” said Kostyuk. “It obviously means a lot – I was going into this match feeling I was going to win. I was ready to do it. I was going with the feeling and enjoying the process.”