London | Britain battle back from brink to seal Fed Cup promotion
It took every ounce of guts for Team GB to beat Kazakhstan at London’s Copper Box on Sunday, earning them a return to the Fed Cup World Group II after an absence of 26 years.
Just a heroic effort from the players this week, some fantastic tennis, Everyone here has been part of our journey and this has been an unforgettable weekend. Jo’s effort, coming back from behind, to Katie today. I think they have inspired a lot of people Anne Keothavong
Johanna Konta scored her 11th straight Fed Cup singles win to give GB a crucial 2-1 lead, followed by Katie Boulter, who also came back from a set and a break down to seal the deal in front of the vocal and enthusiastic crowd.
Konta, currently ranked 46, had to come back from a slow start against Kazakhstan’s second player, Zarina Diyas, to seal the first rubber in the third set on Saturday, while Boulter, playing the highest ranked woman in the tie at No 38, Julia Putintseva, let a blistering start slip away after injuring her back and holding 3 match points to level matters ahead of Sunday’s action.
“I’m going to doing my absolute best to recover tonight. I was just struggling a little bit physically,” a tearful Boulter admitted. “But I’ve got a great team around me so I’m sure I’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
First up, though, was Konta, who faced the feisty Putintseva, supported by some raucous brass-band support from the side-lines from the 500 or so of the 6,000 spectators from Kazakhstan.
Had the din upset her rhythm and focus in the earlier rubber?
“It is a tricky situation for any player to face, but you get more resilient as the match goes on. You adapt and find a way to deal with the challenges,” said Konta.
On Easter Sunday, Konta held to love and looked determined to up her attacking play by rushing the net at every opportunity on the Putintseva serve, earning her a break point, but the Kazakh held her off with a timely ace and then delivered a great lob for 1-1.
The wily Putintseva teased Konta, drawing her in for an overhead and passing her, chasing down a drop attempt to again made the pass and, on break point, racing to the net for an overhead winner of her own to go up 2-1.
Konta replied in kind, deploying her big forehand to break back and hold, but a run of over-hit drives gave Putintseva a timely break chance, which she snagged with a deft drop shot.
The Kazakh served out the set to love, 6-4, after 44 minutes.
In the second, Konta reverted to her aggressive tactics, going after the Putintseva serve to get an immediate break, and swiftly holding to go up 3-0.
Putintseva called for the doctor, had ice put on her neck, and her blood pressure taken, possibly in reaction to warm and airless conditions in the Copper Box, but she played on, and held serve.
Konta, however, was on a roll and not to be denied, breaking again for the set, 6-2.
In the decider, there was another swing in momentum when, in the third game, Konta faced a break point and received a time violation while waiting for the balls to serve.
It briefly rattled the Brit and, seconds later, Putintseva broke, who then rubbed salt into the wound with a love hold to move ahead 3-1.
Konta faced two more break points as the Kazakh repeatedly drew her to the net and passed again to go up 4-1.
The long 6th game brought out the best in both, and was concluded by Konta’s best drop shot of the weekend and, after four deuces, the Brit had a break chance, and took it for 2-4 to start her recovery run.
A love hold kept her in the hunt at 4-5, and she then strongly fought on with some bold net play, pulling out some of her best passing shots to confound Putintseva.
Against the odds of just a quarter-of-an-hour earlier, Konta broke to love for the rubber, 4-6 6-2 7-5, scoring her 11th singles win in a row to put Britain up 2-1 for the tie.
“As a young athlete trying to make it in your sport, you can only dream of this sort of thing,” said Konta. “It is a dream come true. It was a hell of a match.
“I try to look at it in as cool a head as possible. Sometimes you have to accept you opponent will do difficult things, which mean you loses points and games.
“But I tried to look at the good things I was doing. One point at a time, I trusted I would get an opportunity.”
In the 4th rubber, Boulter got to a quick start with an opening break, but Diyas levelled 2-2, and it remained painfully close all the way to a tiebreak, which the Kazakh No 2 surged through to claim 7-1.
With a hot water bottle tucked down the back of her skirt to soothe her bad back at change of ends, Boulter might have faltered at that point, but her determination only grew.
After another exchange of breaks in the second set, Boulter upped her aggression, and Diyas, serving to save the set, doubled faulted to square the rubber, 6-4.
Boulter took a decisive 3-0 lead in the third, looking confident and determined, and stretched it to 5-1 with another break, before serving out the win with an ace on her 3rd match point, 6-7(1) 6-4 6-1, and taking Great Britain through, 3-1.
The Copper Box erupted.
Having failed to convert three match points against Putintseva a day earlier, Boulter was delighted to be able to finally get GB over the line in their fifth play-off in eight years.
“I was trying to get one win for the team, Johanna did a great job,” she said. “I was just trying to make them proud.
“I showed yesterday how much it meant, I was so close but I bounced back and got the win.”
For Team GB, it was a tense watch from the sidelines.
“I was so nervous watching Katie on the side of the court,” admitted Konta. “I’m sweating so much. We have been in this position for the last three years in a row.
“I am almost speechless, which is not normal. I’m still sweating!”
Captain Anne Keothavong, whose home is a stone’s throw from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, has now presided over three straight runs to the World Group II Playoffs and ended GB’s wait for promotion.
“Just a heroic effort from the players this week, some fantastic tennis,” she said. “Everyone here has been part of our journey and this has been an unforgettable weekend.
“Jo’s effort, coming back from behind, to Katie today. I think they have inspired a lot of people.”
According to Russell Fuller, the BBC’s Tennis Correspondent, the format for next year’s Fed Cup competition is far from signed off, but, for the first time in a generation, Britain will at least start the year with a theoretical chance of lifting the trophy as the ITF hopes to introduce a week-long Finals featuring 12 teams from next April.
The plan is for this year’s semi-finalists to be joined by the winners of eight play-off ties to be staged in February.
Interest from host nations was sought in March and Budapest is said to be among the cities to have put its name forward, but financing the event is another matter.
The ITF is understood to have pledged prize money in excess of $10m (£7.7m), and that money is supposed to be generated by the host city.
Fuller adds that there is also a fair amount of opposition to the concept since the WTA tournaments staged in the weeks either side of the proposed Finals will expect to see traditionally strong fields depleted.
Keothavong, who says she has not yet been asked her views by the ITF, admits to being in two minds about whether the reforms are in the best interests of the sport.
“I’m not sure,” Britain’s captain says. “We’ve waited so long for a home tie and now we’ve got it.
“The support we had was something we might not experience again, so it’s hard to know. I don’t know what the right format is for this competition.”
If the planned reform flounders, the ITF is likely to create one 16-team World Group for 2020, played on a knockout basis with the final four competing for the title in November.
Either way, Britain will have its work cut out to make progress, with potential opponents including Japan (featuring World No.1 Naomi Osaka); Romania (featuring World No.2 Simona Halep); the Czech Republic (with two top 5 players in their ranks); and the United States (who have three top 20 players to choose from).
It would be a shame if Britain is not able to host home ties on a regular basis since the LTA proved again, at the Copper Box, that they know how to put on a really good show.
So does Team GB.
Other Fed Cup World Group results
World Group semi-finals: Australia beat Belarus: Brisbane, Australia (hard outdoor), 3-2; France vs Romania: Rouen, France (clay indoor), 1-2
World Group Play-offs: Czech Republic beat Canada: Prostejov, Czech Rep (clay indoor), 4-0; USA vs Switzerland: San Antonio, USA (hard indoor), 0-0; Germany beat Latvia: Riga, Latvia (hard indoor), 3-1; Belgium vs Spain: Kortrijk, Belgium (hard indoor), 1-1
World Group 2 Play-offs: Japan beat Netherlands: Osaka, JPN (hard outdoor), 4-0; GB vs Kazakhstan: London, GB (hard indoor), 1-1; Russia beat Italy: Moscow, Russia (clay indoor), 3-0; Slovakia beat Brazil: Bratislava, Slovakia (clay indoor), 3-0