Against all the odds, Team GB defied critics to stun Spain and reach the semi-finals of the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Glasgow on Thursday for the first time in 41 years.
This is something really special. I'm just so proud of this team. This morning we knew what we had to do. It was always going to be a big ask, but the girls delivered. Through to the semi-finals, we have to allow ourselves to dream a little bit. Anne Keothavong, Great Britain's Billie Jean King Cup captain
To have any hope of making the Last 4, Great Britain needed to defeat Spain in all 3 rubbers but, without Emma Raducanu, few felt it was even a remote possibility.
Captain Anne Keothavong’s team, however, delivered in spades in front of an ecstatic crowd at the Emirates Arena to surprise us all.
Having lost its opener in Pool C to Kazakstan, Britain pulled off the surprise upset of the week against Spain, kicked off by Heather Watson, ranked 133 and now the British No 6, who got her side off to the best possible start, producing one of her best performances of the season to beat Nuria Parrizas Diaz, 6-0 6-2, in 67 minutes.
The 30-year-old won the opening 7 games, and maintained her momentum to clinch a 6-0 6-2 victory over a player ranked 72, some 61 places above her.
Watson has had a disappointing season, and it was no surprise that Katie Boulter was picked as the No 2 singles player on Tuesday, but the British No 4 was substituted on Thursday after an error-ridden display in defeat to Yulia Putintseva.
Keothavong’s gamble to play the more experienced Watson paid off, duly inspiring 98th-ranked Harriet Dart, the British No 2, to pull off the biggest upset of the day by defeating World No 13 Paula Badosa, 6-3 6-4 to win the tie for Great Britain.
Dart went stroke for stroke with the powerful Spaniard, breaking serve 3 times in the opening set.
Badosa, however, put her serve under pressure in the second, but Dart stayed in front before clinching her first match point in an impressive straight sets victory.
“It’s so awesome being here in Britain and being able to host this event,” Dart said as she fought back tears in her on-court interview. “I’m just so happy to keep this one alive.”
The 26-year-old has beaten a number of highly-ranked players this season but she was a big underdog on this occasion, especially given the form Badosa showed in beating Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina on Wednesday.
It was Dart’s 3rd Top 20 win of 2022, having beaten Elina Svitolina at Indian Wells and Daria Kasatkina at the US Open earlier in the year.
To advance, though, Team GB could only reach the semi-finals if 29-year old Alicia Barnett & Olivia Nicholls, who is 28, defeated Aliona Bolsova & Rebeka Masarova in the doubles.
The British pair were late call-ups following Emma Raducanu’s withdrawal, and only made their debut in the competition on Tuesday, when they impressed with their win over Elena Rybakina and Anna Danilina.
They had never been in this type of situation before, though, and they impressed again as they shrugged off the pressure to deliver a 7-6(5) 6-2 win over the Spaniards to land the host nation a spot in the Last 4 on Saturday.
Spain went with a semi-regular pair in Masarova & Bolsova, and it was nip and tuck through a first set that featured chances for both teams but no breaks.
In fact, there was nothing to separate the two sides in the opener as neither pair could manufacture a break of serve despite 5 of the games being decided by a sudden death deuce.
Even the first set tiebreak was tight, but Barnett & Nicholls held their nerve, and when Masarova fired long off a Nicholls’ serve, the crowd at the Emirates Arena erupted in delight as the hope of seeing Team GB pull off one of the most remarkable victories edged closer to becoming a reality.
The second set was a totally different story, with both teams failing to hold serve in the opening 3 games, before Britain consolidated the break for a 3-1 lead, and then secured a double break to move 4-1 up.
When Barnett put away a volley winner, she dropped her racket in disbelief as the team celebrated a first semi-final appearance since 1981 when Virginia Wade and Sue Barker carried the British flag.
Keothavong was quick to praise her whole team after the match, and revealed that her doubles duo have brought a new energy to the group.
“I think what Liv [Nicholls] and Liss [Barnett] bring is something different to the team, which we haven’t had before,” she said. “It’s not just the fact that they specialise in doubles, but they have had a life outside of tennis.
“In terms of, I guess, the camaraderie, you girls have done a great job of really bonding this week, because I don’t think they have really spent that kind of time together on and off the court.
“The banter has been great. The dynamic of the team has just been very different this week, which I think has helped in terms of players cracking on with it, and delivering the performances that we needed today.”
Britain will now face Australia in the Last 4 on Saturday at 10am, the same side that they faced the last time they reached that stage of the competition.
After the tie, the British team gathered in a celebratory huddle, with Nicholls saying that her side had been written off by many people.
“I think a lot of people wrote us off,” she said. “The camaraderie, we just wanted to do it for each other, and I think it showed in the results today,”
Keothavong added: “This is something really special. I’m just so proud of this team. This morning we knew what we had to do. It was always going to be a big ask, but the girls delivered.
“Through to the semi-finals, we have to allow ourselves to dream a little bit.”
Britain lost its qualifier tie to the Czech Republic in April, but then gained a place in the 12-team Finals when the LTA stepped in to host the event at the Emirates Arena, and made the most of it by sweeping Spain, the 5-time champions, just two days after losing to Kazakhstan, 2-1.
Earlier, Australia became the first nation to reach the semi-finals by beating Belgium 3-0 for a second group win in Pool B.
Storm Sanders trounced Alison van Uytvanck, 6-2 6-2, while Ajla Tomljanovic’s victory was sealed when her opponent, Elise Mertens, had to retire because of a shoulder injury when trailing 4-6 6-4, 3-0.
Australia, who also triumphed in the doubles when Sanders & Sam Stosur beat Ysaline Bonaventure and Kirsetn Flipkens, 6-4 6-3, had already defeated Slovakia on Tuesday, 2-1.
Mertens, who won the WTA Finals doubles title on Monday with Veronika Kudermetova, had a gruelling journey to arrive in time to play on Wednesday.
Belgium played its 2 group matches ahead of the first appearance of the Czech Republic, who had 2 players at the WTA Finals last week, and contested its first tie in Pool D, which drew criticism from Belgian captain Johan Van Herck.
“We were not helped by the situation,” he said. “What happened with Elise, I don’t think it’s very correct.
“It had a huge impact on what we had to go through here, especially Elise now with an injury.
“So it’s something where, I think, we, as a small country, have to pay a price for not being the Czech Republic that starts today, or the United States that can play in the evening.”
The Czechs held off a resilient Poland in Pool D to set up a winner-take-all match with the USA on Friday.
Led by Karolina Pliskova, Karolina Muchova, and Doubles No 1 Katerina Siniakova, the Czechs are eyeing a 12th Billie Jean King Cup title this week.
After Muchova easily dispatched Magdalena Frech, 6-2 6-2, Magda Linette once again kept Poland in the mix when, a day after defeating Madison Keys, the World No 49 outplayed former No 1 Pliskova, 6-1 6-4, to force a decisive doubles rubber.
Just as with the Americans the day before, though, Poland could not seal the upset win as Siniakova & Marketa Vondrousova completed the 2-1 win by defeating Katarzyna Kawa & Linette, 6-2 6-3.
It is much the same scenario for Canada after crushing Italy, 3-0, in Pool A, to set up a winner-takes-all match against Switzerland on Friday.
Bianca Andreescu and Leylah Fernandez claimed impressive singles victories to get their campaign off to a perfect start.
Andreescu overturned a 5-2 deficit in the first set, and battled back from 2-0 down in the second, to beat Elisabetta Cocciaretto, 7-6(3) 6-3, while Fernandez then thrashed Martina Trevisan, 6-0 6-0, in just 44 minutes.
Fernandez carried her ruthless streak into the doubles, joining forces with Gabriela Dabrowski to crush Lucia Bronzetti & Jasmine Paolini, 6-1 6-1.
In their final group tie on Friday, Canada take on Switzerland, who swept Italy 3-0 on Wednesday, with the winners advancing to the semi-finals.
Billie Jean King Cup group-stage standings
- Switzerland, 1-0
- Canada, 1-0
- Italy, 0-2
- Australia, 2-0
- Slovakia, 1-1
- Belgium, 0-2
- Great Britain, 1-1
- Spain, 1-1
- Kazakhstan, 1-1
- 1. United States, 1-0
- 2. Czech Republic, 1-1
- 3. Poland, 0-2