Switzerland saw off hosts Czech Republic at the Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas in Prague on Thursday night, reaching the semi-finals with an eye on their first women’s world team cup title, while their next opponents, Australia, eliminated Belarus earlier in the day.
It is a great feeling. I felt, today, the team spirit was amazing, and we were all here for each other. Viktorija did amazing, she did as well as she could, and played a great match against a great opponent. I tried to help out, and was happy I won the singles. It was not easy and then in the doubles, today we were all in and played, not with risk, but very aggressively. Belinda Bencic
Belinda Bencic teamed up with Jil Teichmann for a 6-3 6-3 victory over Lucie Hradecka & Karolina Siniakova in the thrilling decisive doubles match played in front of a packed O2 Arena of Czech home fans.
“The key was to go for a risk because they have an absolutely great team,” Bencic said.
Kicking off the tie, Olympic silver medallist Marketa Vondrousova beat Viktorija Golubic, 6-4 6-2, in 85 minutes after the Swiss won the first 9 points and earned an early break to open up a 4-1 lead.
The Czech No 2 held serve before breaking back to draw level at 4-4, and earned her second break to seal the first set ahead of taking 9 consecutive games to pocket the second.
This was followed by Olympic champion Bencic up-ending World No 3 and reigning Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, 7-6(2) 6-4, as she had done at Tokyo 2020, to level the tie.
Bencic earned an early break, but saw a 5-2 first-set lead slip from her grasp, as Krejcikova recovered.
When the Swiss was serving for the set at 5-4, Krejcikova broke to take matters into the tiebreak where Bencic romped home before going up again at the start of the second.
Again, Krejcikova broke straight back, but Bencic earned her second break in the crucial 7th game to take a 4-3 lead and saved 3 break points on her own serve before landing the rubber to level the tie.
After engineering her 2-hour upset, Bencic, a former World No 4, effectively took control of the tie, returning to the court for the decisive doubles clash, partnering with Jil Teichmann, and the Swiss completed their victory, shocking WTA Doubles World No 2 Katerina Siniakova and veteran doubles star Lucie Hradecka, 6-3 6-3, in just 66 minutes.
The Swiss pair got 70 percent of their first serves into play, and won 88 percent of those points, making them impossible to break, and they faced just a single break point in the match, which they fended off.
They clinched the last spot in the semi-finals with their 2-1 come-back victory, giving the Swiss the top spot in Group D after also beating Germany.
“It is a great feeling,” said Bencic. “I felt, today, the team spirit was amazing, and we were all here for each other.
“Viktorija did amazing, she did as well as she could, and played a great match against a great opponent.
“I tried to help out, and was happy I won the singles. It was not easy and then in the doubles, today we were all in and played, not with risk, but very aggressively.”
Switzerland’s best result in the competition, formerly known as the Fed Cup, was a runner-up finish to 5-time champions Spain in 1998.
Elimination in front of the home crowd was a big disappointment for the Czechs, who have won the competition 6 times since 2011.
The Swiss will now contest their first last-4 tussle in this competition since 2017, when they succumbed to Belarus in Minsk, as their quest for a maiden Billie Jean King Cup title gathers momentum.
“Before the match, I told the girls: ‘we are playing the best team in the world, we have lost several times to them, but today is our day and, today, we are going to be the best team in the world’,” said Swiss captain Heinz Guenthardt, who was sporting red-painted nails. “We needed to be the best team in the world, and we were the best team in the world today.
“But one day does not win the tournament. We have to regroup and come back, but it was a very, very strong performance by our team.
“Playing the best is inspiring. It can either bring out the best in you or, out of fear, you don’t hit any balls in the court.
“We weren’t hiding, or just hoping to get a result, we were here to win, and that is the way we played.”
In the day session on Thursday, Australia became the 3rd semi-finalist in Prague after defeating Belarus, 2-1, in a decisive last tie to top Group B.
Belarus, who have never won a Billie Jean King Cup title, came to Prague without their best two players, World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, and lost both their group ties.
Heading into the final day of group stage action, Australia, Belarus and Belgium all had a shot at making the semi-finals but, as in their 2-1 victory over Belgium two days previously, Australia delivered two standout singles wins to capture the tie before a third doubles rubber could come into play.
27-year old Storm Sanders, whose upset of Elise Mertens was instrumental against Belgium, dismissed debutante Yuliya Hatouka, 6-3 6-3, to get Australia off to a good start.
The World No 131 did not face a break point during her 63-minute win over the 21-year-old Belarusian, who made her WTA main draw debut this season after qualifying for Strasbourg in May.
“For me, to come out and deliver under pressure, it’s a great feeling,” said Sanders. “I played a really solid match.
“I was a little bit tired from my two matches on Tuesday, but I came out and just fought really hard.
“Today, I definitely felt there was more pressure,” she admitted. “For me, even if I was a little bit nervous, it was great to have the teammates on the side and they definitely helped with their support.”
The Aussies, who reached the final of the last edition of the competition in 2019, needed to win the best-of-three series against Belarus to advance from Group B, and Ajla Tomljanovic, who had been sidelined due to illness against Belgium, delivered with a 4-6 6-2 6-3 win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
The Belarusian World No 88 from Minsk was coming off a last-16 showing at Indian Wells, where she ousted US Open champion Emma Raducanu and two-time major winner Simona Halep along the way.
Peppering her opponent with her variety, Sasnovich raced to a double-break 4-0 lead over the Australian, and got herself into a position of serving for the opening set at 5-2.
Tomljanovic, who had stepped onto court with heavy strapping on her left thigh, found her footing and improved as the match progressed and, although she could not save the opener, she did enough to beat Sasnovich in an hour and 58 minutes, coming through a first encounter with the Belarusian by holding her nerve in a final set that saw 7 breaks of serve.
Winning the second set ended Belarus’ hopes of advancing to the semi-finals, but Australia still had to win the rubber to progress in the competition.
“There’s no greater feeling, I was happy that I could come out today and the fact that I got a point makes me unbelievably happy,” said Tomljanovic, ranked 43, who has had a great 2021 season, highlighted by a quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon.
“I just feel like I came here to help the team, and ended up doing that, so that makes me happy.”
The win gave Australia an unassailable lead before Belarus managed to avoid the whitewash by winning the dead doubles rubber, with Sasnovich & Lidziya Marozava defeating Olivia Gadecki & Ellen Perez, 6-4 6-4, to salvage a point.
Australia are chasing an 8th title in the women’s team competition, and now will have to get past Switzerland on Friday evening to get a crack at it.
The 12 teams in the finals were divided into 4 groups of 3 in a new competition format, with only the group winners advancing to Friday’s semi-final knock-out stage.
In the first semi-final, the Russian Tennis Federation (RTF) will face 18-time winners USA.
Four-time champions Russia became the first team to secure a semi-final spot after a 2-1 win over defending champions France in Group A, while the US team beat Spain 2-1 in Wednesday’s night session to finish at the top of the Group C.