The WTA Tour takes a short break as this week is designated for the Billie Jean King Cup Qualifiers, with ties taking place from 15-16 April, as teams seek a place in the Finals in November and, amongst the field of nations, are Great Britain, who jet off to Prague to play the Czech Republic, and the United States, who will host Ukraine at home.
Obviously representing your country is a huge honour, and team events, for me, are something that I thrive in,” she added. They are my favourite events; just being in that team atmosphere, and supporting everyone, and you win as a team, you lose as a team. Sonay Kartal
19-year-old Emma Raducanu is making her maiden on-court appearance in the women’s team competition, although she was selected for the squad that battled Slovakia in Great Britain’s qualifying tie back in February 2020, but did not play a match.
Raducanu, who won the US open in 2021 and has risen to No 12 in the world, takes on a new challenge ahead of her playing her first regular tour match on clay.
She is joined on the GB team by Harriet Dart, who has risen into the top 100 after her remarkable performance at Indian Wells, and is now the British No 2, together with Katie Swan and Sonay Kartal.
Swan first played the BJK Cup in 2016, winning her opening singles match against South Africa and, in the process, became the youngest British player in Cup history at the age of 16 years and 316 days, beating the record of Anne Keothavong by 270 days.
20-year old Kartal is one of the most improved players in British tennis, having won back-to-back the two biggest titles of her career at the ITF W25s in Edgbaston and Glasgow last month, resulting in her ranking jumping from 823 to 397 during that two-week run.
“Playing in the squad was one of my dreams growing up”, Kartal explained. “[I] didn’t expect things to happen how they have this quickly – within the space of a few months – so, yeah I’m definitely very stoked, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Revealing her partiality for team events, Kartal acknowledges the extraordinary milestone that she has now reached in her career.
“Obviously representing your country is a huge honour, and team events, for me, are something that I thrive in,” she added.
“They are my favourite events; just being in that team atmosphere, and supporting everyone, and you win as a team, you lose as a team.”
The Brits are fielding the youngest team of any nation competing in the Qualifiers, in large part because Raducanu and Kartal are both just 19 and 20 years old respectively.
“Emma will be making her singles debut, although she was part of our teams in 2019 and 2020,” Keothavong, now Team GB’s captain said. “Harriet and Katie have been an integral part of the team the last couple of years while I’m excited to give Sonay that experience for the first time.
“Sonay and Emma actually grew up playing against each other, so I think it’s pretty cool that they are both members of the team.
“They have both come on a different path, but there’s no wrong or right way to go about it, as long as you get there in the end.”
Notably absent from the squad are Katie Boulter and Heather Watson, after Johanna Konta announced her retirement from pro tennis.
Under Cup rules, however, the captain is able to make up to a maximum of three changes to the team line-up until one hour prior to the official draw deadline on 14 April.
“We are looking forward to the challenge of playing the Czechs,” Keothavong said. “Emma will be making her singles debut, although she was part of our teams in 2019 and 2020.
“Every tie creates a unique pressure and intensity which I’m sure our players will thrive on and, even though we have a difficult challenge ahead against the Czechs, I have every confidence our squad will do themselves and their country proud.”
Great Britain and Czech Republic have faced each once, most recently in 1995, while GB faced the former Czechoslovakia 5 previous times, with Britain’s 3 victories all coming prior to 1979.
Team GB is currently ranked 15th out of 115 nations on the Billie Jean King Cup rankings, while the Czech’s are ranked 5th and seeded 4th for the Qualifiers.
The Czech squad is led by Marketa Vondrousova, the World No 32, with Katerina Siniakova (45), Tereza Martincova (50) and Karolina Muchova (66) alongside, with their notable absentees being Barbora Krejcikova, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova.
All eyes are bound to be on Raducanu, the World No 12, although Keothavong is keen to play down any expectation on a player who has not yet played a professional match on clay.
“There has been a lot of noise and a lot of talk around Emma since she won the US Open, but she’s learning.” Keothavong explained. “It’s a process for her.
“She’s still getting used to the attention and the expectation that’s comes with being a Grand Slam champion, but she’s a smart cookie, and I have no doubt that she’ll take it all in her stride.”
The tie will be broadcast live on the BBC digital platforms, iPlayer, BBC Sport website and red button where available, as well as the LTA’s social channels, on Friday and Saturday, with start times to be confirmed in due course.
The United States host Ukraine in Asheville, North Carolina, against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a ‘special operation’.
Tennis’ 7 governing bodies each donated $100,000 to relief efforts in Ukraine, while the USTA will contribute a further 10% of their overall ticket revenue from this week’s qualifier.
“We realise, obviously, what Ukraine is going through and leading up to this tie we’ve been very happy to make sure that the Ukrainians have everything that they need to prepare and know that they’re very much supported,” US team captain Kathy Rinaldi said.
“We’re looking for a weekend of very competitive spirit on the court, but also friendship off the court.”
Rinaldi said her team will be hosting a dinner on Tuesday in a further show of support for Ukraine’s players.
“Every time I’ve had a conversation with our players, even before we named our team, everybody was wanting to do something to support Ukraine and to be there to support the players,” Rinaldi added.
“Everybody respects the competition and once you step on the court you’re competing, but off the court we’re allies and we’re friends and we want to be there for them.”
USA head into the clash having lost just one of their previous 7 Billie Jean King Cup ties on home soil dating back to 2016, while they have within their ranks two top-20 players in Danielle Collins and Jessica Pegula.
Collins, who reached the Australian Open final in January, surged into the top 10 for the first time and occupies a career-high spot at No 8, while Pegula is ranked 14, and they are joined by Alison Riske (43), Shelby Rogers (46) and doubles specialist Desirae Krawczyk, ranked 21.
The Ukrainians face an uphill task, at least on paper, fielding Lyudmyla Kichenok, ranked 38, Nadia Kichenok (43), Dayana Yastremska (128), and Katarina Zavatska (773).
During Rinaldi’s spell in charge, USA were crowned Fed Cup Cup champions in 2017 following victory over Belarus in Minsk, although back-to-back titles proved elusive as her charges succumbed to the Czech Republic in the 2018 finale.
At last year’s re-branded inaugural Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Prague, USA’s journey ended in the semi-finals.
The women’s team competition was restructured into a ‘World Cup of tennis’ format concluding with 12 nations competing over one week for the title in November.
Russia, who lifted the trophy when the new-look Finals were held for the first time in Prague in 2021, have been banned from defending their title this year.
Other ties taking place this week include Italy at home against France, Kazakstan hosting Germany, Canada versus Latvia in Vancouver, Netherlands at home to Spain and Poland hosting Romania.
When the teams were announced for the Qualifiers, there were no less than 7 Grand Slam singles champions among the 64 players set to compete for their country, but Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza, Elina Svitolina and Sloane Stephens are among those who have since pulled out, while Ash Barty announced her early retirement, hoping for one last Aussie hurrah until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in Australia’s bye into the Finals.
Iga Swiatek, the new World No 1, leads a Polish team that will still face a tough test against Romania, now led by Elena Gabriela Ruse, while Spain travels to the Netherlands with Paula Badosa, ranked No 3, at the helm.
Canada’s Leylah Fernandez will spearhead the North Americans against a Latvian team that will be looking to Jelena Ostapenko to continue her fine form this season.
Kazakhstan and Germany is another contest that seems too close to call, with World No 20 Elena Rybakina carrying the hopes of the home side, while Germany’s experienced team can count on No 16 Angelique Kerber.
France have a mix of experience and youth in their side, with Alizé Cornet lining up alongside Caroline Garcia, Clara Burel and Kristina Mladenovic against hosts Italy, who will be hoping that playing on home soil, in Sardinia, gives them the edge and, with Camila Giorgi and Jasmine Paolini in the side, the rankings favour the Italians.
The 7 winning nations in the Billie Jean King Cup Qualifiers will join the 4 teams that have already qualified for the 2022 Finals, namely Australia, Belgium, Slovakia and Switzerland.
In addition to the Qualifiers this week, regional Group Play-offs are taking place for the Americas, Asia/Oceana and Europe/Africa.