Fed Cup: How Great Britain can thrive after World Group promotion

By Russell FullerBBC tennis correspondent
GB's Fed Cup team celebrate victory over Kazakhstan
Katie Boulter fought back from a set down to seal GB's 3-1 win over Kazakhstan in London

Anne Keothavong was a playing member of Great Britain's Fed Cup team when they made the trip to Sweden for the 2012 World Group play-off.

Seven years, and three further play-off disappointments later, she is now the captain of a side which finally has the chance to discover whether it can be competitive against the world's elite.

GB's 3-1 victory over Kazakhstan at London's Copper Box Arena ensures a return to World Group level of the Fed Cup for the first time since 1993.

The format for next year's competition is far from signed off. But, for the first time in a generation, Britain will at least start the year with a theoretical chance of lifting the trophy.

The International Tennis Federation hopes to introduce a week-long Finals featuring 12 teams from next April.

The plan is for this year's semi-finalists to be joined by the winners of eight play-off ties to be staged in February.

Interest from host nations was sought in March. Budapest is said to be among the cities to have put its name forward, but financing the event is another matter.

The ITF is understood to have pledged prize money in excess of $10m (£7.7m), and that money is supposed to be generated by the host city.

There is also a fair amount of opposition to the concept. WTA tournaments staged in the weeks either side of the proposed Finals will expect to see traditionally strong fields depleted.

And there are players - and many fans - who resent the potential reduction in the number of home ties which generate the special atmosphere evident this weekend.

Keothavong, who says she has not yet been asked her views by the ITF, admits to being in two minds about whether the reforms are in the best interests of the sport.

"I'm not sure," Britain's captain says. "We've waited so long for a home tie and now we've got it.

"The support we had was something we might not experience again, so it's hard to know. I don't know what the right format is for this competition."

If the planned reform flounders, the ITF is likely to create one 16-team World Group for 2020, played on a knockout basis with the final four competing for the title in November.

Either way, Britain will have its work cut out to make progress.

Potential opponents include Japan (featuring world number one Naomi Osaka); Romania (featuring world number two Simona Halep); the Czech Republic (with two top five players in their ranks); and the United States (who have three top 20 players to choose from).

Britain does not currently have any singles' players in the world's top 40, and yet in Johanna Konta and Katie Boulter do have two players you underestimate at your peril.

Konta appears, at times, to be overwhelmed by nerves. Her game goes off the boil, and yet she invariably recovers, and should be mightily proud to have won 11 singles matches in a row.

At 3-5 down in the deciding set against Yulia Putintseva on Sunday, she won 16 of the last 18 points of the match. She was simply brilliant, and is developing a steely Fed Cup persona.

Boulter is much earlier in her Fed Cup career, but four singles wins in four days in February's qualifying round in Bath were followed here by a very near miss against Putintseva (a match she should have won), and then a courageous comeback against Zarina Diyas.

With a hot water bottle tucked down the back of her skirt to soothe a bad back at change of ends, she clinched the tie by running away with the final set. Some shrink, where Boulter seems to thrive.

The pair will undoubtedly need the support of others if Britain are to become a force at World Group level.

Heather Watson has had a shocking time in singles of late, but is a Grand Slam doubles champion. If she can forge a potent partnership with Harriet Dart, a natural doubles player with singles aspirations of her own, Britain will add another line of defence.

Katie Swan only turned 20 last month and is now a top 200 player with four Fed Cup wins to her name.

And looking a little further ahead, there is 16-year-old Emma Raducanu, who Keothavong hopes "will be knocking on the door soon".

The team spirit seems genuine, and so optimism should not be frowned upon - especially as, for the first time for more than a quarter of the century, the team will not have to endure the annual tribulations of Europe-Africa zone qualifying.

It will be a shame if Britain is not able to host home ties on a regular basis - the LTA proved again at the Copper Box that they know how to put on a really good show - but at least the stakes will be higher in future.

That, in turn, means the profile will be higher. And that is outstanding news for women's tennis in the UK.


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