When Alicia Barnett and Olivia Nicholls think back to the first tournament they played together six years ago - the amateur University Games - even they are struck by their rise. They went from semi-professional graduates to starring for Great Britain at the biggest women's tennis team tournament in the world - the Billie Jean King Cup. "We've literally played every single level together, which is quite a nice story really," Nicholls says.
When Great Britain snuck into this month's BJK Cup finals in Glasgow, few predicted a run to their first semi-final since 1981. Even fewer picked Barnett and Nicholls - a little-known, late-blooming doubles pair making their debut - as the players who would help carry them through.
Before this year, maybe Barnett and Nicholls would not have believed it either. It was only in May that they played at WTA level for the first time and - at the ages of 29 and 28 respectively - they freely admit "we are no spring chickens". In Glasgow, though, they brought an energy and fight not seen from the British team since 2019.
Their key has been to treat an individual sport as a team one. "I'm rubbish on my own," Nicholls says. "I'd be useless if I was travelling alone."
Both were good but not standout juniors and Norwich-born Nicholls had never competed internationally before going pro. Instead, they went to university - Barnett to Northwestern University in Illinois on a tennis scholarship, and Nicholls to Loughborough University - where playing in a team was more important than ever.
It was at Loughborough, where Nicholls had the chance to play low-level ITF events around the UK, that she considered going pro. For Barnett it had long been a dream but when she started touring after graduating in 2016, the reality was unsettling. "I found it really hard," she says. "I was by myself after being on a team. I kept plugging on, but it was a grind."
She and Nicholls met at the 2016 University Games, and made an instant connection - winning their first three tournaments. But they did not consider linking up formally until early 2020. "Since then we haven't really looked back," Barnett says.
Inspired by mingling with other top players at the Battle of the Brits after the first lockdown, including three of the top men's doubles players in Neal Skupski, Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury, they gained self-belief. "That was a real eye-opener of where we wanted to be," Barnett says. "We've had a bit of guidance from those players, a lot of support and encouragement. If you see British players doing well, you think why not me? Hopefully this is the turning point for women's doubles."
Barnett was the more boisterous in Glasgow, geeing up the crowd, while Nicholls had a quieter confidence. In conversation, they operate in similar roles, and their characters complement each other.
Whereas doubles players often flit between partners, Barnett and Nicholls have played almost exclusively with each other for two seasons. The companionship has been vital - especially as both had considered quitting at one time.
Some of the greats of tennis have been burdened by the isolated nature of touring, and lower down the rankings the pressure of dwindling funds and grinding out results at unglamorous tournaments forces many out of the game. "We could share a lot of stories about the hard graft of the ITF tour, every player you talk to has probably slept on an airport floor at one time," Barnett says. "It's a lot easier with a doubles partner because you can share a room, you have someone to hit with, someone to eat dinner with. It's less lonely and a lot easier."
Barnett and Nicholls have won seven ITF titles since 2016, but this has been their breakout season, as they graduated to the big leagues with their first WTA title at Granby, Canada, in August. They also reached the Lyon final and played at Wimbledon for the first time, making the second round.
They have more than halved their doubles ranking in 12 months - from outside the top 180 to just shy of the top 60 - and now sit at British Nos 1 and 2. They are the poster girls for using every step of the tennis ladder methodically to make your way to the top. It is not as headline-grabbing as a meteoric win from nowhere, but it has given them a firm foundation.
"We started from the bottom and ended up playing in the Billie Jean King Cup," Nicholls says. "I think we won tournaments at every level together - I'm not sure many pairs would have done that."
If it were not for former US Open champion Emma Raducanu's wrist injury, Barnett and Nicholls might never have made the cut for Glasgow. But their performances - two straight-sets wins and a narrow loss to major champions Sam Stosur and Storm Sanders - suggest their doubles chemistry could prove an asset for Anne Keothavong's team.
And they are serious about building on this in 2023. This year, they were inside the top 25 doubles partnerships. Now they want to be in the top eight, to make the year-end WTA Finals.
"There've been a lot of jokes about this," Nicholls says of their GB team-mates' reaction to the goal-setting. "Everyone said, 'I'm surprised you didn't say you're going to win all the grand slams!' But I don't think it's unrealistic. It might sound like a big statement, but we will be playing the slams, more Masters [events] and more WTA 500s - so it's achievable. We'd be... satisfied with that if we manage to achieve it."
"Yes," Barnett nods, a flash of a smile on her face. "Very satisfied."