The Russian Tennis Federation (RFT) were crowned Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas champions at the O2 Arena in Prague on Saturday after prevailing over Switzerland, 2-0, to land the silverware for the 5th time in history, its first triumph since 2008, and have expressed an interest in hosting the finals next year.
I have too many emotions now – I feel like I’m freezing. It’s unbelievable, I’m unbelievably happy. Today was an incredible fight – a much more nervous game. It was more than tennis. Luidmila Samsonova
Daria Kasatkina and Liudmila Samsonova pulled off impressive singles wins, seeing off strong challenges from Jil Teichmann and Belinda Bencic and winning the championship tie after the 2 singles rubbers.
Switzerland were hoping to win a maiden Billie Jean King Cup, but had to settle for second place after having also finished as runners-up in 1998.
Six years on from their previous final appearance, also here at O2 Arena, RTF proved a class apart through 5 ties to claim the trophy, the first winners of the rebranded and revamped finals.
RTF turned out with 5 players ranked inside the top 50 at captain Igor Andreev’s disposal and their opening 3-0 win over Canada underlined their status as the team to beat.
In the end, they dropped just 2 matches over the 5 ties en route to the title, drawing level with Spain in the all-time champions’ honour roll, behind USA, Czech Republic and Australia.
“It’s an historical win for us,” Andreev said. “It’s been a long time without any trophies in team tennis.
“I’m very proud and very happy for the girls, the way they played. They’re amazing, they’re heroes, and they achieved this because they’re a team – a real team – and real friends.”
A late change to RTF’s running order came less than 30 minutes before the singles players were due on court for the opening ceremony.
Following assessment by the independent doctor on site in Prague, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was ruled out with a flare-up of patellar tendinitis in her left knee and was replaced by Samsonova.
It set up a third clash with Bencic this year and the fact that Samsonova had won both their previous meetings added to the drama as the teams lined up for their anthems.
Kasatkina then got RFT off to a flying start with a 6-2 6-4 victory over Teichmann in the opening rubber, the first meeting between the two.
The World No 28 took out Teichmann, ranked 39, in an hour and 19 minutes, aided by the Swiss’ 16 unforced errors, compared to just 4 from the Russian in a one-sided first set.
Teichmann got on the board late in the set, denying the RTF No 2 the chance to serve out a bagel before collecting her first hold of the match, and it marked the start of the real contest, as the Swiss kept herself in the second with her aggressive play punching holes in Kasatkina’s defence.
The Russian rarely looked flustered, though, and was first to break for a 4-3 lead, and while Teichmann hit back in the next game, she was undone once more to leave Kasatkina serving for the match.
The former Top 10 player used her speed and skills to draw errors from Teichmann, and prevailed to score the first point of the day in RTF’s favour, Kasatkina thumping her chest in celebration after the Swiss steered one final forehand into the tramlines, then jumping over the barriers into the arms of her teammates in celebration.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Kasatkina said on court after her win. “I played the first match [for RTF], now I’m playing in the final, and I’m happy that I’ve brought this very important point to my team.
“The beginning [of the match] was very important. We were both nervous, but I think I managed that a little bit better, and I was not missing. It’s different to start a match 4-0 up or 4-0 down – I think that was the key.
“Today’s not finished, and now I have to be their supporter.”
The BJK Cup was clinched when Samsonova, the World No 40, upset 17th-ranked Bencic in a 3-set comeback, 3-6 6-3 6-4, that lasted 2 hours 22 minutes.
Neither had lost a rubber this week, with Bencic going 3-0 in singles and 1-0 in doubles, while Samsonova won both her singles and doubles in the semi-finals against the United States on Friday.
Samsonova snatched an early break but Bencic, the Olympic gold medallist, responded with an instant break back, and the volume in the O2 Arena stepped up a notch as both began producing tennis befitting the high stakes.
There was tension too, the Swiss almost caught out by Samsonova’s lengthy lag between first and second serves, at one point turning her back during the ball toss, only to pivot and see the delivery on its way.
The Swiss bench, no doubt surprised by the late change in opponent for their No 1, asked for something to be done about the delays, but when it mattered, Bencic kept a clear head and another look at break point presented itself at 3-4.
Having taken a brief pause herself before Samsonova’s second serve at 30-40, Bencic fired a bullet return that the Russian put in the net and a hold to love, sealed the first set with an ace.
Samsonova, just as in her win over former US Open champion Sloane Stephens on Friday, shook off the loss, and brought her powerful game to bear in the second, slamming a forehand crosscourt winner onto the sideline to earn the only break of the set at 3-2.
Bencic looked to seize the initiative at the start of the second set, but the 22-year old saved 4 break points in the opening game, steadied the ship and committed to patrolling the baseline.
A nip-and-tuck set went the way of the Italian-raised Olenegorsk native as she pounced on a loose game from Bencic to lead 4-2, sending the match into a decider.
In the opening game of the third, big returning by Samsonova gave her a crucial service break, which proved decisive, and although Bencic held break points in each of the Russian’s next two delivery games, she failed to convert.
The Russian held firm, and confidently served out the match at 5-4 to wrap up a gripping win as her teammates swarmed the court in celebration of a historic win.
“I have too many emotions now – I feel like I’m freezing,” Samsonova said. “It’s unbelievable, I’m unbelievably happy.
“Today was an incredible fight – a much more nervous game. It was more than tennis.”
After the presentation ceremony and celebrations RFT President Shamil Tarpishchev told TASS: that Russia is interested in hosting the final of the Billie Jean King Cup, if funds are allocated for the purpose.
“We are interesting in hosting such a reputed event,” he said. “It would promote tennis in the country and give it an impetus, but funds are needed to do so.
“Currently, we work according to the following principle: ‘little money – one champion, big money – lots of champions.’ All our successes are not a coincidence, they are a result of hard work,” he added.
Russia has now won the tournament 5 times – in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2021 – and finished as the runner up in 1999, 2001, 2011, 2013 and 2015.