Britain’s squad are currently in Bratislava preparing for the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifiers but without Johanna Konta or Katie Boulter on board, both of whom played an integral part in wins over Hungary, Slovenia, Greece, Serbia and Kazakhstan last year.
Yes, we’re without our top player in Johanna Konta – she made the semi-finals at Roland Garros last year so she’s a very capable clay-court player, but it is what it is and, as captain, I just have to prepare the players who are fit and healthy in the best way possible. Anne Keothavong
This stacks the odds heavily against a weakened Great Britain, who face a Slovakian team made up of Viktoria Kuzmova (ranked No 65), Jana Cepelova (161), Rebecca Sramkova (164), Magdalena Rybarikova (172) and Anna Schmiedlova (199).
Captain Anne Keothavong is fielding a team led by Heather Watson (74), with Harriet Dart (141), Naiktha Bains (217), Katie Swan (257) and Emma Raducanu (363) alongside.
“Yes, we’re without our top player in Johanna Konta – she made the semi-finals at Roland Garros last year so she’s a very capable clay-court player,” Britain’s Captain Anne Keothavong said. “But it is what it is and, as captain, I just have to prepare the players who are fit and healthy in the best way possible.”
Nearly 500 British fans are expected to make the trip to support Team GB, but surely do so in the knowledge that they are the underdogs in what would have already been a challenging tie at the Tehelne Pole Stadium, which serves both the country’s top football side Slovan Bratislava as well as the national team and is the same site of the National Tennis Centre.
At the heart of this complex are 3 clay courts that place Britain at a further disadvantage.
Slovakian Fed Cup Captain Matej Liptak said: “Konta is absolutely a top player. For Great Britain it’s a really big miss. For us it’s a little bit more of an advantage.
“Also Boulter, I think, is a very good player and also not good for Great Britain team, but I still think the tie is very open and the tie is 50-50 for me.
“The ranking of our players is not very strong, maybe we have players which already played a lot of matches in Fed Cup so have a lot of experience – that’s good.
“It’s good also that we’re playing at home, we can have the crowd on our side and I think we chose the surface which can be a little bit more of an advantage for our team. We will see in the weekend. This tie is very open.”
Swapping the hard courts of Australia for European clay is no easy transition and the Brits, who have been practising at the venue since Monday, will have had roughly 10 days on the clay in London and Bratislava before kick-off on Friday.
The issues associated with movement on this surface were highlighted by Harriet Dart during practice with team-mate Heather Watson on Tuesday evening.
Wrong-footed, Dart took a nasty tumble on the clay but was fine to complete their session.
Dart, likely to be Britain’s second singles player, although Keothavong remains tight-lipped on who will be selected, is relatively inexperienced on clay, playing just 3 matches on the dirt last season.
Commenting on the indoor clay compared to the more commonly used outdoor clay on the WTA Tour, such as at the French Open, Liptak observed: “It’s a big difference.
“Indoors it’s faster, there is no wind, no sun so for the players that like to serve or play aggressive for sure it’s better than to play outside.
“The clay is also a little bit different, it’s faster. That’s not maybe a good or a better thing for us but it’s still clay. Clay is a really different surface so if you know how to play on it…”
Keothavong wasn’t surprised to see her team forced to battle on clay, but ramped up the heat on the opposition by insisting they are the team with pressure on their shoulders.
“It wasn’t a huge surprise you chose to play this tie on clay,” she told the media on Tuesday. “We’re aware of the opposition, the Slovak players are all very comfortable on clay.
“Obviously, as the host nation you have not only home advantage but also get to choose the surface that suits your players the most.
“I think it will be a tough challenge for the British team here, I think all the pressure is on the Slovak team to perform and I guess to live up to your expectations.
“I think the Slovakian team are the favourites. You have the home support, you have the choice of court and you have players who have performed really well in Fed Cup in the past.”
Last year Great Britain qualified for the elite World Group for the first time in 26 years, and although changes to the newly revamped Fed Cup this year see them essentially back at square one, the road to the finals is much simpler now.
This weekend marks the start of a new era for the women’s team competition, and some appear to be taking things more seriously than others.
The USA announced a power-house line-up last week that will be the envy of the world, not least their Latvian opponents, and includes 23 time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, the in-form teen prodigy Coco Gauff, newly-crowned Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin; Wimbledon quarter-finalist Alison Riske, and 9-time doubles Grand Slam champion Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
They will be one of 16 nations competing this weekend, over 8 separate qualifying ties across the world.
If they can beat the Slovakians, the Brits and the 7 other winning nations will then progress to the April finals in Budapest, where they will meet the 4 already qualified teams in a ‘World Cup’ type competition made up of a group stage, semi-finals and final.
It is a shame that Great Britain is unable to field a team of its best, especially since the Fed Cup will now only run over 2 total weeks, which alleviates players schedules.
This smaller commitment is possibly why Williams was on hand for her country for the first time in a while, but then Olympic selection is dependent on availability to play Fed Cup.
Konta is already eligible for the Olympics, and with a world ranking of No 14, is the British No 1, with Watson at No 2, but she is managing a knee issue and selecting her tournament commitments with care while defending her ranking points.
“It’s an Olympic year, I’m looking to schedule things for the longevity of my body,” she said of her decision to opt out.
She was instrumental in Team GB’s Fed Cup success in 2019 and reached the semi-final in Paris, the clay-court major at Roland Garros last year.
In fact, 6 of the world’s current top 10 will represent their countries over the course of this weekend, including big-hitters such as Naomi Osaka (4), Bianca Andreescu (7), Belinda Bencic (7), Serena Williams (9) and Kiki Bertens (10).
USA and Latvia are facing off for the first time in Fed Cup, with Anastasija Sevastova joined once more by former Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, and Diana Marcinkevica and Daniela Vismane completing the visitors’ line-up.
In La Manga Carla Suarez Navarro is set to lead Spain in what may be her final tie on home soil.
The 31-year-old, who has represented her nation in Fed Cup since 2008, will retire at the end of 2020, meaning victory over Japan would take her swan-song to the Laszlo Papp Sports Arena in Budapest.
Spain will face a stern challenge from the visitors, however, with two-time Grand Slam champion Osaka making her 3rd appearance for Japan.
The World No 4 will be joined by Misaki Doi, Kurumi Nara, Ena Shibahara and Shuko Aoyama, while Suarez Navarro will play alongside Sara Sorribes Tormo, Aliona Bolsova Zadoinov, Lara Arruabarrena and Georgina Garcia Perez.
In one of the potential clashes of the round, World No 7 Belinda Bencic is set to face reigning US Open champion Bianca Andreescu when Canada head to Biel to face Switzerland, a rematch of last year’s tight semi-final showdown at Flushing Meadows.
Bencic will lead a Swiss side packed with experience and an edge in the rankings, with Jil Teichmann, Viktorija Golubic, Stefanie Voegele and Timea Bacsinszky also on captain Heinz Guenthardt’s roster.
Andreescu, 19, has not been seen on court since the WTA Finals in Shenzhen in October, missing the Australian summer with a knee injury, but will be joined by 2019 Roland Garros junior champion Leylah Annie Fernandez, former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard and two-time Grand Slam mixed doubes champion Gabriela Dabrowski.
Former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka will also kick-start her 2020 season in Fed Cup when Belarus face Netherlands.
World No 12 Aryna Sabalenka will lead the team in The Hague, with captain Tatiana Poutcheck also selecting Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Olga Govortsova and Lidziya Marozava.
The hosts will be looking to Bertens to lead their bid for Belarus, with Arantxa Rus, Lesley Kerkhove, Indy De Vroome and Demi Schuurs also called up by Paul Haarhuis.
Across the border in Kortrijk, Belgium will take on Kazakhstan in a battle of two team who historically punch above their weight in Fed Cup competition.
World No 17 Elise Mertens will anchor the team alongside Kirsten Flipkens, Ysaline Bonaventure and debutant Greet Minnen, while Kazakh stalwarts Yulia Putintseva and Zarina Diyas will be joined by Anna Danilina and Yaroslava Shvedova.
Ekaterina Alexandrova is set to make her Fed Cup debut in Cluj-Napoca when Russia travel to Romania.
The visitors will arrive with a wealth of experience in the form of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, veterans of a combined 33 Fed Cup ties, as well as Veronika Kudermetova and Anna Kalinskaya.
Last year’s semi-finalists are fielding a much-changed side against the Russians, with Ana Bogdan, Irina Maria Bara, Elena Gabriela Ruse and Jacqueline Adina Cristian all in line for a Fed Cup debut. Raluca Olaru completes the line-up hoping to contest her 10th tie for the hosts.
With the new Qualifiers and Finals format in place, Brazil’s promotion from Americas I in 2019 has put them within 5 wins of the Fed Cup title in 2020.
The hosts will have it all to do against two-time champions Germany in Florianopolis, where Laura Siegemund and Tatjana Maria will be joined by Anna-Lena Friedsam and Antonia Lottner.
Gabriela Ce and Teliana Pereira will hope to spring an upset for the Brazilians, with Caroline Meligeni Rodrigues Alves, Laura Pigossi and Luisa Stefani also named in Roberta Burzagli’s side.
The Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifiers will be played on Friday 7 February and Saturday February 8 at 8 locations worldwide, with the winners booking their places in the draw for the Fed Cup Finals 2020, which will be held on Tuesday 11 February in Budapest, host city for the inaugural Finals.
Next week will also see action from Regional Group I and II events in the Americas, Asia/Oceania and Europe/Africa, with 68 nations competing in total. Nominations for all events are available on the Fed Cup website.
To watch the Fed Cup this weekend, tune in to BBC/LTA and Fed Cup TV available via video.fedcup.com