The Czech Republic was forced down to the wire on Day 1 of the 2021 Billie Jean King Cup Finals, but the home team prevailed over Germany in a late-night tie to thrill the fans at the O2 Arena in Prague.
The commanding Czechs, who have won the Billie Jean King Cup title six times in the last ten years, claimed a decisive doubles victory after midnight to win their tie 2-1 and take the lead in Group D, as the preeminent team event in women’s tennis got underway on Monday.
Under a new format, 12 national teams gathered in Prague and split into four groups of round-robin play over four days. The group winners will pair off into Friday’s semifinal ties, with the championship tie contested on Saturday.
Olympic silver medalist Marketa Vondrousova kicked off the Czechs’ charge on Monday evening in style, with a 77-minute victory over former Top 10 player Andrea Petkovic, 6-1, 6-3.
But in a battle between Top 10 players, World No.9 Angelique Kerber of Germany triumphed over World No.3 Barbora Krejcikova, 6-7(5), 6-0, 6-4, leveling the tie at one win apiece.
Kerber, back in the Top 10 this week for the first time since July of 2019, broke reigning Roland Garros champion Krejcikova seven times in the clash. Germany, twice a Billie Jean King Cup champion in 1987 and 1992, were a win away from upsetting last decade’s dominant force.
However, the Czechs’ deep doubles squad clinched the victory in the end. WTA Doubles World No.2 Katerina Siniakova paired with veteran doubles star Lucie Hradecka to edge Anna-Lena Friedsam and Jule Niemeier of Germany, 6-4, 6-7(2), [10-8].
Siniakova and Hradecka were nearly blanked in the second-set tiebreak, but they gritted out the deciding match-tiebreak to collect a hard-fought win in an hour and 42 minutes in front of partisan supporters in their nation’s capital.
Spain went even later in the evening to win their tie, going until nearly 12:30 a.m. local time to squeak past Slovakia 2-1.
The evening started off well for Slovakia with Viktoria Kuzmova defeating former Top 10 player Carla Suárez Navarro, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. But Sara Sorribes Tormo leveled the tie with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 win over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in a grueling 2 hours and 45 minutes.
After their tough singles matches, Sorribes Tormo and Suárez Navarro jumped into the critical doubles tie as well, and they earned a 4-6, 6-2, [10-7] win over Kuzmova and Tereza Mihalikova.
Suárez Navarro, who peaked at World No.6 in 2016, is playing the final event of her career at the end of her farewell season. Suárez Navarro made an emotional return to tour earlier this year after overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The Spaniards are aiming for their sixth Billie Jean King Cup championship. Spain dominated the event in the 1990s, winning five times during that decade.
Canada, Belgium win day session ties
The day session matches kicked off with a classic underdog victory as Canada, fielding a team without a Top 100 player, stunned defending champions France 2-1 in Group A. Simultaneously at the O2 Arena in Prague, Belgium got their Group B round-robin campaign off to a fine start with a 2-1 defeat of former finalists Belarus.
The last time the team competition was staged, Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia brought home France's third trophy after a thrilling 3-2 away victory over Australia. Neither player was present at the revamped Finals, the first under the event's new name and the first in a week-long, single-venue format. Nonetheless, the experienced Alizé Cornet and Fiona Ferro were favoured to come through against a Canadian squad also lacking its highest-ranked players, Bianca Andreescu and Leylah Fernandez.
However, World No.353 Françoise Abanda has a history of playing her best tennis for her country. The 24-year-old has never been ranked inside the Top 100, but owns Billie Jean King Cup victories over Irina-Camelia Begu, Jana Cepelova, Yulia Putintseva and Arantxa Rus. So it proved again here. Despite coming into the week with a meagre 5-6 win-loss record in 2021 across all levels, Abanda battled to a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 upset of Ferro.
Cornet levelled for France by defeating Marino 6-4, 7-6(5), but Canada had the edge in a deciding doubles rubber. Gabriela Dabrowski, the doubles World No.5, joined up with Marino to overcome Cornet and Billie Jean King Cup rookie Clara Burel 6-3, 7-6(6).
In 2017, Belarus had been the underdogs who stole the show, going all the way to the final despite the absence of two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka. They could not repeat the trick against Belgium.
Read more: Belgium make winning start to Finals
Greet Minnen dispatched World No.263 Iryna Shymanovich 6-2, 6-2 in just 69 minutes to give her country the lead, and Belgian No.1 Elise Mertens backed that up by defeating Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-2, 4-6, 6-2. Mertens had won just one match in four meetings with Sasnovich prior to this year, but following a victory in Luxembourg two months ago has now levelled their head-to-head at three apiece.
Belarus did manage to get on the scoreboard by capturing the doubles rubber, with Sasnovich and Vera Lapko defeating Mertens and Kirsten Flipkens 6-4, 6-3.