Underdogs Great Britain dazzle Spain to reach Billie Jean King Cup semi-finals




Underdogs Great Britain dazzle Spain to reach Billie Jean King Cup semi-finals - Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Underdogs Great Britain dazzle Spain to reach Billie Jean King Cup semi-finals - Ian MacNicol/Getty Images  

The drums beat and the flags flew on Thursday night at Glasgow's Emirates Arena, just as they used to in Andy Murray's heyday. But here was a different story entirely, as Britain's women scrapped their way into the semi-finals of the Billie Jean King Cup.

Anne Keothavong's team thus join Jos Buttler's cricketers and Sarah Hunter's rugby players in contesting a world title this weekend - even if they still need to win two matches where the others only need one.

Theirs is by far the most unlikely storyline of the three. The two England sides both started their respective tournaments in Australasia as favourites, whereas Great Britain stand a lowly 17th in the rankings, 14 places behind Thursday's opponents Spain.

To make matters worse, their 2-1 defeat at the hands of Kazakhstan on Tuesday night meant that they came out needing to sweep Spain 3-0 if they were going to progress.

Only the bravest of punters would have risked a penny on such a remote proposition. And yet, the stars aligned perfectly for Keothavong and her courageous team.

Heather Watson was the catalyst. Having been omitted against the Kazakhs, she returned to inflict a 6-0, 6-2 landslide on the unfortunate Nuria Parrizas Diaz. The scale of Watson's victory then inspired Harriet Dart to record arguably the finest win of her career: a 6-3, 6-4 ambush of world No13 Paula Badosa. Bear in mind that Dart stands only just inside the top hundred at No98.

Harriet Dart pulled off the finest win of her career against Paula Bardosa, ranked 85 places ahead of her - Adam Vaghan/Shutterstock
Harriet Dart pulled off the finest win of her career against Paula Bardosa, ranked 85 places ahead of her - Adam Vaghan/Shutterstock  

And yet, the job was still not finished. Doubles specialists Olivia Nicholls and Alicia Barnett had only made their debuts for their country on Tuesday. Now they found themselves carrying the weight of this elimination match in front of a highly invested crowd, who banged and tooted for all they were worth.

It was a nerve-shredding conclusion, especially as the doubles format is different in the Billie Jean King Cup. You play a deciding point at deuce, and a super tie-break instead of a third set, giving the whole experience a sudden-death vibe.

Nicholls and Barnett are 28 and 29 respectively and had never played a match of anything like this resonance before. Victory would bring Great Britain a first semi-final since 1981, when the team featured a pair of major-winners in Virginia Wade and Sue Barker, as well as a future world No5 in Jo Durie.

Their opponents - Aliona Bolsova and Rebeka Masarova - were no mugs, having recently won a second-tier event in Spain. And when the action started, the tension ratcheted up quickly.

The margins were so tight that five of the first eight games went to the deciding-point deuce. Each volley could potentially determine which nation would be knocked out. At courtside, Watson was bouncing up and down in ecstasy after each successful rally. "I wear this to measure my activity," she said, pointing at her sports watch, "and my stress and calories burned were higher supporting that doubles than my practice earlier in the day."

A thrilling victory for Great Britain came down to a dominant doubles display by Olivia Nicholls and Alicia Barnett - Jane Barlow/PA
A thrilling victory for Great Britain came down to a dominant doubles display by Olivia Nicholls and Alicia Barnett - Jane Barlow/PA  

But after the first-set tie-break, which the Britons snatched by a 7-5 margin, they loosened up and completed their 7-6, 6-2 victory via an incisive Barnett volley. These doubles specialists stayed cool even in the aftermath of their triumph, while the players on the sideline burst into tears of joy.

Credit must go to Keothavong for making the right selections, just as Leon Smith had come unstuck with his Davis Cup choices here eight weeks ago (so triggering a backlash from disgruntled singles player Dan Evans).

Keothavong was right to omit Katie Boulter after her disappointing performance against Yulia Putintseva on Tuesday, and to pick the bubbly Watson instead. She also showed courage in preferring the unproven pairing of Barnett and Nicholls when she had more familiar faces on hand.

Without Emma Raducanu, who withdrew a week ago with a wrist problem, the British squad was among the weakest of the 12 nations assembled in Glasgow. Perhaps only Slovakia had less to offer on paper. But home support is a powerful asset in team tennis.

"At these events, anything can happen," said Dart after her win. "When I walk out and they call Great Britain, I get goose-bumps. You realise it's so much more than you. It's huge. For me, playing Fed Cup is one of the greatest things, for sure, in my career."

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