Fed Cup 2017: Watson and Konta beaten by Romania in bid for World Group place
Great Britain lose their Fed Cup World Cup Group II play-off in Romania, dropping them back to the Europe/Africa Zone
The first day, and Johanna Konta’s first match, in the World Group 2 play-off tie that determined GB’s fate in joining the elite 16 nations in Fed Cup, will be remembered more for what happened off the court than on it.
Amid abuse from Romania’s captain Ilie Nastase, brave attempts from his No1 player Simona Halep to reason with the crowd, tears from Konta, and a brief suspension of play after Nastase was evicted from the site, it was hard to concentrate on the tennis itself, but Konta had dug deep to reel off five straight games and win her match over Sorana Cirstea. GB and Romania began Sunday all square.
The following press conferences did little to pour oil on the waters, however: Why, Cirstea wanted to know, was the match halted when she was 3-1 up? Meanwhile, the ITF opened an enquiry into Nastase, who was banned from the remainder of the tie.
Against this backdrop, Konta and Halep returned early to court for what was one of the most highly-anticipated match-ups of the weekend’s Fed Cup action, with good reason if their two main-tour meetings were anything to go by.
Halep was one of Konta’s victims on the way to her biggest title in Miami last month, though the Briton had come back from set down and edged a second set tie-break before sealing the match after two and a half hours.
Konta’s other win came in her break-out season of 2015. Having made it to the fourth round at the US Open via qualifying, beating No9 Garbine Muguruza and No18 Andrea Petkovic along the way, she did the same in Wuhan, beating Halep 7-5 in the third set.
However, before Konta’s rise to the top, she did meet Halep in the group stages of the Fed Cup, back in 2014, and that was a comfortable win for the Romanian. What’s more, Halep had the advantage of an adoring home crowd plus the clay—and she is a former French Open finalist and the reigning Madrid champion.
Certainly the conditions did not bring out the best in the new world No7 Konta’s game, as last year’s results on the red stuff proved: First-round losses in Stuttgart, Madrid and the French Open, with her two match-wins on the faster clay of Madrid her only success.
Constanta, on the Black Sea, was unseasonably cool and damp, too, dampening Konta’s penetrating power from the back of the court, and that showed from the off. The Briton would make just four winners for 20 errors in the first 28-minute set, as Halep plied her fast and nimble tennis to take control from inside the baseline. Two breaks and the Romanian led 4-0, and a further break to love made it 6-1.
Halep did, of course, have the backing of the majority of the Constanta crowd, and her tennis continued to flow freely, but after a long and intense discussion with GB captain Anne Keothavong, Konta upped the pace and began to take the ball earlier. She could not break through in a long opening game, but had another chance to break in the third game, and did so with a blistering return of serve.
The Briton remained tough in the fourth game, fighting off two break-back points, but Halep was warming to the challenge, finding her rhythm and accuracy, and got the break in the sixth game, 3-3. From there, Konta was on the back foot, unable to handle Halep’s sharp play, and the Romanian surged through the next three games for the win in just 71 minutes, 6-3.
That left a mountain of a task for British No2 Heather Watson, who would take on Irina-Camelia Begu—who missed her opener on Saturday with a stiff neck—but the Romanian, ranked 33, was a step up from her team-mate Cirstea’s No62 ranking.
Watson lost their only previous match, though that was four years ago when Watson was just 20 and recently diagnosed with glandular fever. But having come back to a career-high 38 in 2015, the Briton had struggled with consistency and form, and only last month, dropped outside the top 100 after making just five wins in six tournaments.
Not that Begu’s season had impressed either, but she was the only woman in the tie with several matches already played on clay. Indeed, three of her five wins this year had come in Charleston, where she made the quarter-finals.
Watson had shown considerable resistance against Halep in the early stages of their opening match on Saturday, but once the Romanian found her range and rhythm, she broke down the Briton’s game to win 6-4, 6-1.
Watson again produced her best, though the early stages suggested another one-sided affair when Begu broke in the first game.
However, that would set the pattern for the set, with four breaks in the first six games, as Watson fired two outright forehand winners to level at 3-3.
But the Briton tightened on serve in the next game, double faulted twice, and Begu pounced. The Romanian had to hang tough as Watson countered with a break-back point in a long eighth game, and she did, to hold for 5-3, and served out the set with big overhead winner, 6-4.
The second set would become a battleground as both women’s levels rose through some fine rallies. Each had to survive early break challenges, each battled through for 2-2.
They then exchanged breaks as each battling long and hard to take the initiative. Watson faced three break points and numerous deuces as the set extended to an hour, but after a swift hold by Begu, she was under pressure again. Three more break points, and Begu got the breakthrough she needed.
The Romanian made no mistake in closing things out with a big serve to grab victory for herself, 7-5, and for her country, 3-1.
So GB’s 24-year wait for World Group membership continues as once again they will return to the Zone 1 to begin their campaign anew next February.
And Romania will be joined by Italy and Australia among the 16 elite nations, with Canada and Kazakhstan all square as they compete for the final place.