In a simple sport usually contested as a head-to-head duel, the nuances of team tennis competitions so often lend the format to unpredictability and surprises. Such drama unfolded freely on a cold afternoon in Prague as Great Britain fought admirably to push the Czech Republic all the way to an unlikely deciding fifth doubles rubber on clay in the Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers before finally succumbing 3-2.
“Right now, I do feel really proud of all of the players and team effort that’s into this weekend,” said Great Britain’s captain, Anne Keothavong, afterwards gone. “The fact that it came down to the deciding rubber just shows how much guts and courage the players had.”
The sheer quality produced by Marketa Vondrousova this weekend, whose level was far above anyone else, was a harsh welcome to the demands of top level clay-court tennis for Emma Raducanu. Throughout their hour on the court, Vondrousova soaked up Raducanu’s attempts to attack her with her supreme defense, she pulled Raducanu off the court with angles and peppered her with delicate drop shots.
After the first set, Raducanu took a medical timeout for a blister on her foot, which surfaced after her first match, and she struggled to move until the end, losing 6-1, 6-1. “It was compromising every shot I had to play,” she said. “It’s very disappointing when you’re out there playing a rubber for your country and you feel completely redundant.”
The blisters on Raducanu’s foot are another setback in a long list of injuries and illnesses that have hampered her in matches since the US Open, including a hip injury, a back injury, blisters on her hand, Covid-19 and others. Both she and Keothavong attribute her ailments to her inexperience.
“Of course it is frustrating for sure,” said Raducanu. “But in some sort of twisted way it gives me a sense of confidence and relief that I don’t think it’s my tennis that’s the issue. I think my tennis level is pretty good. It’s just about being able to repeat it or maintain it or not be hampered by any sort of physical issues.”
Blessed with an abundance of top 100 options, Czech captain, Petr Pala opted for the most dramatic choice possible by drafting in his fifth player Linda Fruhvirtova, ranked 170 and 16 years old, in her BJK Cup debut. It turned out to be a dire decision. As the higher-ranked player with far more experience, Harriet Dart imposed herself from the beginning against a tepid Fruhvirtova and played flawlessly to lead 6-0, 3-0. Only Dart’s nerves after leading 6-0, 5-2 briefly led to a competitive match but she recovered well to seal the victory 6-0, 5-7, 6-2.
As the tie came down to the doubles, despite dealing with cramps in the final set of her singles contest, Dart returned alongside Katie Swan. It was unsurprisingly Vondrousova who took control and pulled the strings throughout the match next to former top 20 singles player Karolina Muchova. The British team were positive and resolute, recovering a late break and pushing deep into the second set, but the combined skill of two top-level players was too great and the Czechs confidently secured victory 6-1, 7-5 to move on.
Despite the defeat, Great Britain may still make the finals in November after all. The LTA have tabled a bid to host the event, and the successful bid will be revealed sometime around the French Open. Should they succeed, they would be entitled to a spot in the 12-nation finals as the host.