Day 1 of the Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifiers saw Emma Raducanu win her first professional clay court match to put Great Britain on a level footing with Czech Republic in Prague, while newly-minted World No 1 Iga Swiatek lost just a single game to Romania to give Poland a 2-0 lead, and Alison Riske won a 34-point tiebreaker to put the USA 2-0 up against Ukraine.
This win means so much to me. It is my first Billie Jean King Cup match and to come out and represent my team like I did in my first professional match on clay is really amazing. It definitely means so much because this year I have been playing really good tennis for a set, maybe a set and a half, and then my energy dips, and I find myself in an absolute battle. Today, I felt it was another step in the right direction because I managed to overcome that, so that gives me a lot of confidence. For the team also, we’re still in this. We’re still in this battle and we’re fighting! Emma Raducanu
Raducanu, the British No 1, who has been training hard on the clay, confessed that she has no toe nails left after the hard-court season.
“I have no toe nails,” Raducanu told reporters at the draw ceremony in Prague. “Just my foot, my shoes, they’ve just been sliding around a lot. I had a small niggle in Miami but now I have no physical thing.”
The 19-year old is making her BJK Cup debut, and pulled off an impressive win over the far more experienced Czech Tereza Martincova, who is ranked 38 places below the reigning US Open champion, but is playing at her club in Prague in front of a home crowd.
Earlier, Czech No 1 Marketa Vondrousova romped past Harriet Dart in just 55 minutes, 6-1 6-0, to put her team ahead, before Raducanu took on Martincova, who ominously broke her serve to take a 5-4 lead in the opening set, only for the British teenager to turn the tide with a 3-game winning streak, including 2 breaks of her own.
Far from plain sailing in the second, Raducanu was forced to recover from 3-0 and then 4-1 down, but she did not shirk the challenge and continued to grow in stature, showing great variety in her game and eventually prevailing, 7-5 7-5, which prompted scenes of jubilation on the GB bench.
“This win means so much to me,” said Raducanu. “It is my first Billie Jean King Cup match and to come out and represent my team like I did in my first professional match on clay is really amazing.
“It definitely means so much because this year I have been playing really good tennis for a set, maybe a set and a half, and then my energy dips, and I find myself in an absolute battle.
“Today, I felt it was another step in the right direction because I managed to overcome that, so that gives me a lot of confidence.
“For the team also, we’re still in this. We’re still in this battle and we’re fighting!
“Tomorrow, I face Marketa and, of course, she is a great player. She made the final of Roland Garros [in 2019] and she loves clay, but I’m looking forward to playing her.
“It will be a great test to see where I am at on clay, and build for the rest of the season, because all tournaments are going to have this quality of opposition.
“I am looking forward to seeing how my game measures up and if you’re going to have a challenge, why not pick the toughest one?
“I’m up for that challenge and who knows what will happen? The team is really pumped and looking forward to it.”
Team GB Captain Anne Keothavong is instilling a collective vibe in her squad and is hoping for a victory on Saturday, which would propel them to November’s Finals.
“There is something to build on,” she said. “I have to remain optimistic, and we go in to tomorrow believing we have a good chance.
“We came here as underdogs. The Czechs were the heavy favourites and still are, but we will review how both matches went today and put together a game-plan, and the players will be as prepped as possible.”
The Czechs, however, have a fearsome Billie Jean King Cup record to protect, and they will not go quietly, having topped the competition’s podium on 6 occasions since 2011.
“The Brits love being underdogs, by the way!” Keothavong added with a smile.
Meanwhile, in Radom in Romania, Swiatek produced a performance befitting her newfound status as the World No 1, brushing aside Mihaela Buzarnescu to put Poland on the cusp of a place in November’s Finals.
The 20-year-old breezed through to extend her winning streak to a spectacular 18 matches, dropping just a solitary game for the second time in the run, and dishing out her 8th bagel in the process.
She followed Magda Linette’s 3-set win over Irina-Camelia Begu earlier in the day.
“I’m much more confident right now,” Swiatek admitted. “I feel like I have grown up for sure.
“I’ve developed every aspect of my game. The streak that I have on the WTA Tour has given me so much confidence that, right now, I can just put pressure on my opponents and that’s really a privilege.
“I’ll be working on my new position as well, and I hope to stay there for a while.”
For the 33-year old Buzarnescu, this was always going to be an uphill battle and, ranked 122 spots below the Pole, the former World No 20 was some way off her best on Friday, but Swiatek rarely gave her a chance to shine.
Swiatek has recorded wins against fellow Grand Slam champions Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka this year.
“It’s something absolutely special,” said Linette of Swiatek’s rise. “I’m so happy to be witnessing it from the very beginning, when she didn’t have a ranking.
“I saw it from the beginning how great she was, so I’m really pleased, it was something that she was definitely capable of.”
Saturday’s deciding day could be something of a procession, with Swiatek set to face Begu, who she defeated 6-1 6-0 in the third round at Wimbledon last year, in the opening match of the day.
Begu was off the pace for the majority of the early exchanges against Linette on Friday, but will be encouraged by the way she battled back to win the second set before eventually succumbing, 1-6 4-6 6-2.
A continent away, in Asheville, North Carolina, Riske and Jessica Pegula gave the United States a 2-0 lead over Ukraine on Friday in the best-of-five BJK Cup qualifier.
There was not a dry eye in the house as the Americans listened to the Ukrainian anthem ahead of their tie, but despite the obvious emotion that is surrounding the clash, Kathy Rinaldi’s team put their game face on and clinched a 2-0 lead after day one, thanks to contrasting victories for Pegula and Riske.
Pegula, the World No 14, is ranked some 187 places higher than her opponent Katarina Zavatska, and demonstrated why she has risen up the rankings with a clinical 6-2 6-1 display to win in an hour and 4 minutes.
Crisp hitting and fine footwork were enough to see the 28-year-old through in front of a respectful home crowd at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville.
“I don’t think rankings mean much,” said Pegula. “All the girls behind me play amazing tennis have wins every week, and I’m just really proud to be a part of the girls who are all playing really well right now.”
Riske then beat Dayana Yastremska, 7-6(16) 7-5, surviving an epic first set that lasted 1 hour, 27 minutes.
The 34-point tiebreak was the second-longest in Billie Jean Cup history, surpassed only by the 40-point breaker in a doubles match when India’s Manisha Malhotra & Sania Mrza beat Uzbekistan’s Ivanna Israilova & Vlada Ekshibarova in the 2004 Asia/Oceanic Group 1 event, 21-19.
“Honestly, I don’t even know what happened,” Riske said. “It was so bizarre and amazing at the same time.
“I felt like every time I got a set point, she would come up with something, a great serve or a great return, that would put me on offence.
“I had a couple second serves throughout that time that I was a little nervous on and didn’t quite execute, so those were unfortunate.”
Once the American had captured the opening set with that mammoth breaker, she looked to be on the verge of completing a straight-sets victory when she was 5-1 to the good in the second, but Yastremska refused to lie down and battled back to 5-5.
The Ukrainian was unable to force a second tiebreak, though, when Riske found another gear and started to find more accuracy on her groundstrokes before a close final game was clinched by a pair of unforced errors off the Ukrainian racket.
Riske, who found just 1 ace, compared to Yastremska’s 6 aces and 4 double-faults, added that it was an emotional match.
“I was just really proud that I was able to keep my head in there, and overcome that,” Riske said. “I wanted to win for my team.
“I want to win for my country. I’m honestly just very proud that I was able to do that.”
On Saturday, Pegula will play Yastremska, and Riske will face Zavatska in the reverse singles, followed by a doubles match, and the United States only needs to win one of these rubbers to advance to the finals.
In the other ties, Kazakstan took a 2-0 lead over Germany, when Yulia Putintseva upset World No 17 Angelique Kerber, 3-6 6-3 6-2, after Elena Rybakina (19) dispatched Laura Siegemund, 6-0 6-1; Italy went 2-0 up over France, with Jasmine Paolini overcoming Alizé Cornet, 2-6 6-1 7-6(2), and Camila Giorgi a 6-1 6-2 winner over Oceane Dodin; while Canada’s 2-0 lead over Latvia came after Leylah Fernandez dismissed Darja Semenistaja, 6-1 6-2, and Rebecca Marino outlasted Daniela Vismane, 6-3 6-7(4) 6-3; and Spain leads the Netherlands 2-0, with Nuria Parrizas Diaz taking down Arantxa Rus, 6-2 7-6(4) and Sara Sorribes Tormo a 6-4 6-3 winner over Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove.