The Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas final will be contested by Switzerland and the Russian Tennis Federation (RFT) on Saturday after both teams came through their semi-finals at the O2 Arena in Prague with contrasting wins against Australia and the USA.
“I think she has a bright future [Luidmila Samsonova] if she continues this way and she impressed me today because I wasn’t sure actually about the decision of putting her – nothing to do with her game, she has an amazing game, but because when you have your debut in this kind of format and competition it’s completely different and it’s so mental, so I wasn’t sure how she would handle it and she did just perfect. I’m happy she’s here. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
The RFT had to battle down to the wire to advance against a gritty and determined team of Americans, while the Swiss swept past the Aussies with relative ease.
The afternoon semi-final pitched Liudmila Samsonova for the RTF, who came back from a set down to beat 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, 1-6 6-4 6-3, in the first rubber.
RTF captain Igor Andreev has fielded 3 different singles line-ups in as many ties this week, and his decision to field Samsonova, who was the last to arrive in Prague after contesting the semi-finals at Courmayeur last Friday, in singles for the first time paid off.
“I’m trying to learn a lot from them, because I’m the youngest, I don’t have so much experience,” said Samsonova, who started the season ranked 127 in the world and is now up to a career-high No 40.
“Of course Nastia [Pavlyuchenkova] is the boss of the team, and I’m trying to learn a lot from her. Every moment is important.”
Stephens was formidable in the first set of the opening rubber, winning 91 per cent of her first-serve points and 100 per cent of her second-serve points.
The 28-year-old scored 28 points, double that of her Russian opponent, dropping just the one game to win it in 26 minutes before Samsonova produced the tennis that saw her win the German Open in June.
Finding her range in the second, the Russian’s big serve and aggressive game began to move Stephens around the court and after saving 2 break points at 2-3, she pounced in the 9th game, rushing the net to break the Stephens serve for a 5-4 advantage and she closed out the set comfortably to force a decider.
They exchanged breaks at the start of the third, but it was the Russian who surged ahead 4-2 with some fine volleying and although Stephens kept fighting, she only delayed the inevitable, and Samsonova secured victory in just under 2 hours, despite serving 3 double-faults on the way.
“She was playing so well today, I had to find the key against her today, to push her,” she said. “Because at the beginning I was running too much and I had to find the key to start to play more aggressively against her.,” said Samsonova of Stephens.
“It means too much to me [to be part of this group]. It was a dream for me to play for the national team and it happened this year and I’m super happy.”
Danielle Collins then levelled the tie for the Americans, squeezing past top Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in a 2-hour 42-minute battle, 6-7(9) 7-6(2) 6-2, to force a deciding doubles clash.
She, too, had to rally from a set down to beat this year’s Roland Garros finalist and Olympic mixed doubles gold medallist, with the first set taking over an hour and the second nearly as long, as they battled through a marathon in a match that was neck and neck before Collins ultimately cruised through the decider, converting both of her break points and winning all 6 of Pavlyuchenkova’s second-service points in that set.
The Russian squandered her chances, wasting key points and winning just 3 three of the 12 break points she carved out while fatigue, possibly, was a factor as 30-year old Pavlyuchenkova had already played 2 taxing 3-setters in the group stage.
“I felt a little bit more pressure playing down, that I needed to figure out a way to win and it’s tough,” said the 30th-ranked Collins. “I probably wasn’t the favourite player on paper with our comparison in rankings, and the year that she’s had, but I’ve also been playing some good tennis, so I had to just trust my abilities and go for it.
“I wanted to keep the team alive, when you’re playing on a team, you have even more motivation to fight as hard as you can, and try to find a way to win when things aren’t working for you.”
The tie came down to a doubles showdown for which Samsonova returned to the court, teamed up with Veronika Kudemertova, to take on Shelby Rogers & Coco Vandeweghe.
The Russians produced a clinical display as they crushed their opponents, 6-3 6-3, in an hour 13 minutes, sending RTF into their 12th Billie Jean King Cup final, and their first since 2015.
Between Samsonova’s huge serves and soft hands at the net, and Kudermetova’s punishing groundstrokes from the back of the court, the Russians were in control throughout most of their doubles contest.
“I can’t even describe what it feels like,” tweeted an elated Samsonova after the win. “Today is one of the most exciting and important days of my entire life!
“We are in the Final of BJK Cup. Proud and overjoyed.”
Pavlyuchenkova paid tribute to Samsonova and the important role she played in Friday’s action.
“She’s one of the nicest girls I’ve met so far on tour ,and I’m so happy, and honoured and proud, that she’s on our team,” said Pavlyuchenkova.
“I think she has a bright future if she continues this way and she impressed me today because I wasn’t sure actually about the decision of putting her – nothing to do with her game, she has an amazing game, but because when you have your debut in this kind of format and competition it’s completely different and it’s so mental, so I wasn’t sure how she would handle it and she did just perfect. I’m happy she’s here.”
RTF, who are bidding for a 5th title in the competition, then awaited the winners of the evening semi-final tie between Switzerland and Australia.
USA captain Kathy Rinaldi rued her team’s missed chances of reaching the final for a record 31st time, saying: “I think there’s a lot of positives to take from this week.
“I think we had a great week coming into the competition. Great team, great team-mates, I think that’s always a positive. We’ve had some great matches, some great battles we got through.
“We lost a tough one today, had our opportunities and credit to our opponents, they really stepped up.
“So many positives, these are the weeks that we cherish, weeks that we’ll never forget.
“Obviously it’s very disappointing, the girls are all competitors and they wanted to win that. We felt we had some chances to do that. We had a rookie on the team and I think it was a great experience for her.”
Switzerland had a much quicker pathway into the final as they outclassed Australia with two routine straight-set singles wins, making the doubles rubber redundant.
Playing her first singles match of the week, Jil Teichmann was in commanding form as she swept to a 6-0 6-3 win over Aussie Storm Sanders, reeling off the first 9 games of the 63-minute encounter.
This year’s Olympic champion Belinda Bencic swiftly propelled her Swiss team into the championship match from there, dispatching Ajla Tomljanovic, 6-3 6-2, in 68 minutes.
Bencic has dominated proceedings this week, going 3-0 in her singles matches and picking up a doubles point against the Czechs to boot.
Following their best result as runner-ups to 5-time champions Spain in 1998, Switzerland is seeking its first Billie Jean King Cup championship.
“It’s quite incredible, said Bencic. “I don’t think we really expected it. We had the toughest group with Czech Republic. We were very happy about yesterday.
“Today was very difficult mentally after such a big win to stay focused. We are so happy to be in the final.”
Captain Heinz Guenthardt’s team made light of the quick turnaround from Thursday’s hard-fought victory over hosts Czech Republic to sweep past the Group C winners in emphatic fashion.
“We feel awesome,” Guenthardt said. “We came here to compete and we are, obviously, very competitive.
“There’s one more to go and, hopefully, it’s going to be a great final.
“Tennis is a lot about belief. When we got here, you’ve got to believe you’re able to compete with anyone, and you’ve got to believe you can lift the trophy at the end of the week.
“There is no reason to stop believing now.
Finalists in 2019, Australia can be rightly proud of their efforts in Prague to reach the final 4, particularly in the absence of World No 1 Ash Barty, who spearheaded their run to the final two years ago.
Tomljanovic, Sanders and the returning Daria Gavrilova have all contributed singles wins this week, but in Switzerland they met a side brimming with confidence.
Teichmann, 24, gave the Swiss the perfect start and remains undefeated in BJK Cup play, adding a 3rd singles win to her 4 doubles victories in ruthless fashion against Sanders, making just one unforced error through the first 6 games as she denied the Aussie any chance to repeat her Group stage heroics with wins over Belgium’s Elise Mertens and Belarus’s Yuliya Hatouka.
Against Teichmann, however, the 27-year-old left-hander endured a torrid time in the first set, winning just 3 points as the Swiss World No 39 produced a flawless 6 games to take the opener in just 18 minutes.
When Teichmann broke again at the start of the second, Sanders did well to maintain her composure, drawing a huge cheer from the crowd and the Aussie bench when she got on the board at 3-1, in turn drawing a smile from the World No 131 before breaking to get back on serve in the second.
It was a brief reprieve as the Swiss No 2, selected ahead of Viktorija Golubic for the all-lefty clash, broke once more before firing 3 aces in the final game.
“They just told me about the three points, and that from 2-0, 15-0, I didn’t lose another one,” Teichmann said. “I wasn’t thinking of that, I was just going point by point – it sounds silly, but it actually is like that.
“I knew it was going fast, but I wasn’t aware of the point situation. It’s always awkward to play lefty-lefty, it’s always a different game, but I really like it. I play very aggressive, and my shots went in, not in a crazy way but in the right way.”
Less than 24 hours after playing singles and doubles back-to-back in the victory over the hosts to top Group D, Bencic extended her unbeaten run in Prague with a straightforward victory over Tomljanovic, racing out to a 3-0 lead before the World No 39 found her rhythm.
The Aussie, whose 3-set win over Belarus’s Aliaksandra Sasnovich secured their spot in the semis on Thursday morning, made just 8 unforced errors but was undone by Bencic’s aggression, the Swiss World No 17 firing 18 winners.
When Bencic broke at the start of the second set, the momentum was firmly with the team in red, and there was no way back for Tomljanovic.
“I like the O2 Arena – I like indoors, I like the conditions,” Bencic said later. “And it’s about staying strong.
“I get emotional sometimes, but I think it only helps me to stay focused, that I never get satisfied.
“And after covid, we are so happy to be playing in front of fans. It’s really great.
“Thank you to everyone who is trying to come and support tennis as much as they can because this is an amazing competition.”
Day 5 Semi-final Results
Russian Tennis Federation defeated USA 2-1
- Liudmila Samsonova (RTF) d. Sloane Stephens (USA) 1-6 6-4 6-3
- Danielle Collins (USA) d. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RTF) 6-7(9) 7-6(2) 6-2
- Veronika Kudermetova/Liudmila Samsonova (RTF) d. Shelby Rogers/CoCo Vandeweghe (USA) 6-3 6-3
Switzerland defeated Australia 2-0
- Jil Teichmann (SUI) d. Storm Sanders (AUS) 6-0 6-3
- Belinda Bencic (SUI) d. Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS) 6-3 6-2
- Ellen Perez/Storm Sanders (AUS) v Viktorija Golubic/Stefanie Voegele (SUI) – not played