Fed Cup 2017: Konta and Watson beat Croatia to take GB into World Group II play-offs
Great Britain qualified for the Fed Cup World Group II play-offs with a 2-1 victory over Croatia
With a full-strength squad and a new Fed Cup captain—this was Anne Keothavong’s first tie since taking over from Judy Murray last spring—the GB quartet of Johanna Konta, Heather Watson, Laura Robson and Jocelyn Rae has given their nation a chance to break into World Group II after beating Croatia by two rubbers to one in their zonal promotional play-off.
The squad had already made a clean sweep in the round-robin phase of the Europe/Africa Group I tie held in Estonia this week, beating Latvia, Turkey and Portugal in all nine rubbers.
Keothavong then took the bold decision to unite her two singles players, Konta now ranked No10 in the world and Watson at 72, in the deciding doubles rubber with the nations all square at 1-1. The decision paid off: The British duo came back from a set down to beat Ana Konjuh and Darija Jurak, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
It will be the first time since GB fell at the same stage in 2012 and 2013—on both occasions in away ties—that the team has the chance to break into World Group II, the eight-team tier immediately below the top World Group.
The team, along with fellow play-off winners Serbia in the formidable Europe/Africa group of 14 teams, will now play one of the four losers from the World Group II opening rounds played this weekend: Australia, Chinese Taipei, Italy or Romania. The draw, which will determine the venues, will take place on Tuesday, with the ties played in mid-April.
Despite being one of only four nations to have competed in every Fed Cup competition since it was established in 1963, GB has never won the title—though was runner-up in 1967, 1970, 1972 and 1981—and has not been a member of the World Group since 1993.
The Fed Cup format, especially for the Europe-Africa group, is a gruelling one. Konta and Watson, for example, headed from the Australian Open to Estonia to play four ties on four consecutive days, doubling up on that last day to play two matches. Had they failed in their final doubles match, they would have had to wait another year to try again.
And as an indication of the kind of competition that GB faces in the Europe-Africa group, only one of the current elite eight is from outside this zone, the USA, as are only two in World Group II.
Even if GB goes on to qualify for World Group II in April, only the four winning teams in a year’s time will have the chance to qualify among the elite eight nations, half as many as in the Davis Cup.
This unforgiving format came in for criticism when Murray handed over the captaincy after five years on the Fed Cup tour. She said:
“The GB team has been stuck in the Euro-Africa Zone for an eternity. We play four countries in four successive days in February and only two teams qualify for a play-off opportunity to progress to the World Group. If you don’t make the play-off, there’s nothing until the following February, making it impossible to build any momentum on or off the court.”
The ITF’s response at the time was promising:
“Like many captains and nations, Judy would like to see the Fed Cup format changed to a 16-team World Group which would allow more movement of teams from Zonal Groups into the World Group. This is a view shared by ITF President David Haggerty who, with the board, is looking at reforms to Fed Cup as well as Davis Cup.”
Their deliberations will be watched with interest, but in the meantime, GB’s Fed Cup team has given itself another chance to break through, as long as its top women remain injury free.
Robson, for example, was ranked inside the top 30 when she played in the squad that reached the World Group II play-offs in 2013, but she subsequently missed the better part of two years with wrist injury, and only gradually began her return to the tour last season.
Robson is, though, still only 23, and with a return to her earlier form, the rise and rise of Konta in the rankings, and the fierce competitiveness of Watson in Fed Cup, GB could finally have the depth and strength to make the breakthrough to the World Group.