Great Britain digesting agonizing semi-final defeat in Billie Jean King Cup
Great Britain’s Billie Jean King Cup team were left with an agonising sense of what might have been after losing a deciding tie-break to Australia in the semi-finals in Glasgow.
Playing in the last four for the first time in 41 years after Thursday’s remarkable whitewash of Spain, Anne Keothavong’s side had high hopes of emulating Sue Barker and Virginia Wade, who led Britain to their fourth final in 1981.
Heather Watson lost the opening rubber 6-4 7-6 (3) to Storm Sanders but Harriet Dart followed up her victory over 13th-ranked Paula Badosa by upsetting world number 33 Ajla Tomljanovic 7-6 (3) 6-2 to take it to the wire.
Doubles duo Alicia Barnett and Olivia Nicholls have been the revelation of the week for the hosts on their international debut but they were just unable to conjure a third victory, losing out in a deciding tie-break 7-6 (1) 6-7 (5) (10-6) to the impressive Sanders and Sam Stosur.
“God we were close,” said Keothavong. “I’m just gutted for everyone right now but also I think we have to try and keep things in perspective. What a fantastic week it really has been for the team.
“I don’t know how many people gave us much of a chance really to even come through the group stages. It really is a fantastic achievement to reach the semi-finals, but we felt we could have gone further. That’s why it hurts so much.
“It’s going to hurt the players for a while but they’ll get over it. They can still hold their heads high because they really have shown what they are capable of under a huge amount of pressure to deliver, and in the end it came down to a few points.”
Cheered on by nearly 4,000 fans at the Emirates Arena, Barnett and Nicholls had their chances, holding two set points at 6-5 in the opening set after fighting back from a break down.
Barnett was then broken serving for the second set but they battled through a tense tie-break – helped by some shocking misses from Stosur – to force a first-to-10-point decider.
The British pair fought back from 3-6 down to level but the Australians finished with four points in a row to book their spot against either Switzerland or the Czech Republic on Sunday.
The British players fought back tears afterwards, with Nicholls reflecting ruefully on the foot fault given against her at 6-6 in the decider.
“You’d think the British linesman might have given me that one,” she said.
“We’re up against two grand slam champions. Storm’s top 10. We literally couldn’t have come any closer in this match. We handled the occasion so well. If we would have been walked over, it would have hurt more to do that than it does to lose in the fashion that we just lost.”
While defeat understandably stung, Britain hugely out-performed expectations and there should be optimism, especially if Emma Raducanu can get herself on an even keel next season, that this need not be a one-off.
Dart, in particular, will leave Glasgow believing she can elevate her ranking well above its current 98 having taken on three of the world’s biggest hitters and beaten two of them.
The 26-year-old took full advantage of a slow start by Tomljanovic, who sent Serena Williams into retirement at the US Open, picking up where she left off against Badosa and powering into a 5-2 lead.
She was unable to serve out the set and missed a set point at 5-4 but played much the better tie-break against her faltering opponent.
Dart had been on the front foot throughout and she continued to strike the ball with superb authority, wearing down Tomljanovic and clinching another standout victory.
Playing as number one in the absence of the injured Raducanu, Dart has relished the occasion, saying: “It’s a bit wild. Growing up, I dreamt of being on the team and representing my country. Honestly, it’s such an honour to be able to be here let alone playing as the number one player.
“I have just been really happy with the way I have been putting in good performances out there.”
Watson denied feeling the pressure of expectation against a player ranked more than 100 places lower in singles and instead said the early start to the match – Britain had previously played in the evening – affected her.
But, whatever the reason, it was clear from the start this was not the same Watson who had barely missed a ball in a 6-0 6-2 pasting of Nuria Parrizas Diaz.
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