Just 4 precious points separated Australia and Great Britain in the semi-finals of the Billie Jean King Cup by Gainbridge Finals, and it was the hosts in Glasgow who went down in the deciding doubles rubber, 7-6(1) 6-7(5) [10-6] on Saturday at the Emirates Arena.
It’s ours for the taking. Today, Australia really showed our fighting spirit. We are going to bring it tomorrow too. It’s exciting! We’ve got the team, I believe, to get through tomorrow. We’re still making up for the final we lost in 2019. Alicia Molik, Australian Billie Jean King Cup Captain
There was bitter disappointment for Alicia Barnett & Olivia Nicholls, Team GB and British fans, who nevertheless can hold their heads high after unexpectedly reaching the Last 4 against all the odds, while Storm Sanders & Sam Stosur were jubilant in sending Australia into the final where they will meet Switzerland on Sunday.
The Swiss, who have lost just one match within their 3 ties so far, upset the 11-time champions Czech Republic to make the final for the second year in a row.
While 3-time finalists Switzerland have yet to win the women’s World Cup of Tennis, it has been 48 years since Australia’s last title, but they have been runners-up 9 time since that victory in 1974, the last time in 2019.
The day started with Sanders putting Australia ahead with a 6-4 7-6(3) win over Heather Watson, before Harriet Dart stunned Ajla Tomljanovic, 7-6(3) 6-2, to keep the host nation alive.
“Gosh, I can’t really talk right now, I’m shaking,” Storm Sanders said in her on-court interview. “That was amazing, Heather is a really, really good player and playing in front of a home crowd means it was going to be a tough ask for us.
“It was a really good match, it could have gone either way, and obviously early on in that second [set] Heather got on a bit of a roll.
“I just tried to stick with her and try to fight, I was able to turn it around and I’m super happy with my performance today.”
Watson, the World No 133, was unable to reproduce the form that helped Britain beat Spain to head Pool C, against Sanders, who has never made the Top 100 and is ranked down at 237 in singles, but No 10 in doubles.
Sanders proved to be the better player on the day, having claimed two confident singles wins this week, and she immediately put Watson under pressure, breaking her serve in the 3rd game.
It was nip-and-tuck through the rest of the first set, with neither dominant on serve, but Watson was unable to find the free-swinging brilliance she showed in dispatching Nuria Parrizas Diaz for the loss of only 2 games, while Sanders mixed up her her tactics well.
The Australian served out the set strongly, but then took a medical time-out for what looked like a right hip issue, and headed off court for a treatment.
Despite signs of discomfort as she dropped serve for the first time in the 2nd game of the second set, Sanders struck straight back, and while Watson dug deep to save 4 break points in a long 9th game, spurred on by the fans, the Aussie raced out to an early lead in the tiebreak and did not look back.
British hopes then rested with the Dart, who impressively saw off Tomljanovic in straight sets, a player who has reached the quarter-finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open this year, to put the host nation back on track.
“The Billie Jean King Cup just brings the best out of me,” Dart said later. “I love playing in front of a home crowd, and I feel like I have really been feeding off my teammates and everyone here.
“It just makes me really want to do really well.”
89th-ranked Dart added Tomljanovic’s scalp to that of Paula Badosa a couple of nights ago, by breaking the Aussie in the second game, and looked totally at ease with the pressure on her shoulders.
Although Tomljanovic hauled herself back into the contest, and saved a set point at 5-4 as as the set headed to a tiebreak, Dart raised her game when it mattered, conjuring up some magic on the run to grab a one-set lead.
The early stages of the second proved pivotal as Dart continued playing her game and went up an early break.
When Tomljanovic netted her usually reliable backhand on break-back point, Dart dug herself out of the game with an ace, and served out the rubber nervelessly a few games later.
“The support out here has just been incredible,” Dart said to the 3000-strong crowd in the Emirates Arena. “There’s honestly nothing better than being out here with Great Britain on the back of my shoulders.
“Walking out here I get goosebumps every time.”
The chips were down for the doubles rubber, with all to play for, and Nicholls & Alicia Barnett came so close to pulling off another miracle, but Sanders & Stosur prevailed after a thrilling hour 32 minute battle.
It was an intense contest that saw each set go the distance, each pair breaking serve twice in the clash that was only settled by a match tiebreak, in which the Australians pulled away by winning the last 4 points.
They had saved 2 set points at 6-5 in the first set before dominating the breaker, with Sanders’ blistering returns bolstered by clutch serving by Stosur.
Nicholls’ volleys then kept the British duo in play, and they squeaked out the second set tiebreak after a passing shot winner from Barnett.
In the match breaker, Barnett & Nicholls chipped away at the Australian pair’s 6-3 lead to level at 6-6, but a volley winner by each Aussie saw them move ahead 8-6, and a Stosur forehand winner gave them 3 tie-winning points at 9-6.
The Australians held their nerve admirably in the teeth of the home crowd din, and needed just the one, as a final winning volley from Sanders completed her exceptional day with her second win, moving her team into the final.
Australia reaching the final is all the more impressive when it is remembered that the country’s best player, Ash Barty, retired earlier this year aged just 25, while it is the heroics of Sanders alongside the seemingly ageless Stosur this week that gives captain Alicia Molik the belief that her team is ready to be crowned BJK Cup champions when it meets Switzerland in Sunday’s final in Glasgow.
“It’s ours for the taking,” declared Molik, eyeing a first Australian title in the competition in 48 years since Evonne Goolagong led the champions. “Today, Australia really showed our fighting spirit.
“We are going to bring it tomorrow too. It’s exciting!”
They will be the underdogs against the Swiss, though, for whom Olympic champion Belinda Bencic beat Karolina Pliskova in straight sets to seal a 2-0 win over 11-time champions Czech Republic.
“We’ve got the team, I believe, to get through tomorrow,” said Molik, whose side was beaten by the Swiss in last year’s semis. “We’re still making up for the final we lost in 2019.”
Stosur, 19 years since she first played in the event when it was known as the Federation Cup, was again a rock for her inspired partner as Sanders won her 5th rubber of the week.
It was the 39th Billie Jean King Cup win of 38-year-old Stosur’s distinguished career, and there has hardly been a more important one.
“I’d certainly rather be playing than watching,” smiled the former US Open champion, who felt she might spend the week cheerleading on the bench after not having won a match since June.
Instead, she has now prevailed in 2 crucial matches with Sanders this week.
“I wanted to try and help the team in whatever way I could,” she added. “If that’s on the court, that’s great; if it’s cheering from the sideline, then that’s OK too.”
While there is disappointment in the British camp, there are many positives to take from this week.
“I’m just gutted for everyone right now but also, I think, we have to try and keep things in perspective,” British captain Anne Keothavong told reporters. “What a fantastic week it has been for the team.
“I don’t know how many people gave us much of a chance really to even come through the group stages.
“It really is a fantastic achievement to reach the semi-finals, but we felt we could have gone further. That’s why it hurts so much.
“It’s going to hurt the players for a while but they’ll [the team] get over it. They can still hold their heads high because they have shown what they are capable of under a huge amount of pressure to deliver, and in the end, it came down to a few points.”