· Johanna Konta fights back from a set down to win first rubber
· Katie Boulter wins first set, bounces back from injury in third, only to concede three match-points
· Plus standings of other World Group action
And ahead of what could be a milestone tie for the home nation in Fed Cup competition, the hero of the historic Davis Cup victory in 2015, Andy Murray, sent an encouraging message of support to the women who would take to court over this Easter weekend.
For Great Britain, who had played every year of Fed Cup competition and reached the final four times, had never won, and had not been in the World Group stages for 26 years.
In February, they swept through the Zone competition without losing a match to earn the third chance in a row to join World Group 2, the last stepping stone to top-level World Group competition, and had earned, after decades of away ties, another home event. So the 5,000 capacity at the Olympic Park’s Copper Box was ready to give whole-hearted support to the cause.
Johanna Konta was first up, and while she had struggled with form in the last couple of years after twice making Major semi-finals—she was ranked down at 46 from a high of No4 less than two years ago—she was favoured to win the opening rubber against Kazakhstan’s No2 player, the 107 ranked Zarina Diyas.
However, she opened with a double fault, then went 0-30, and an aggressive Diyas broke at the first time of asking. The Kazakh support may have been small in size but it was huge in volume.
Diyas was stepping in, taking Konta’s serve early, and took the Briton to deuce, but after a long tussle, Konta held. They had played just three games, but the clock already showed 22 minutes.
Facing 3-1, Konta then had to face two more break points, but a winner from Diyas sealed the break, 4-1. Another winner, and she had held for 5-1. The Briton seemed unable to free up her own game, forced into playing as Diyas determined.
But with her back against the wall, 2-5 down, Konta worked her first break points, and Diyas double faulted: 3-5.
The trombone, trumpet and drum support band of Kazakhstan redoubled their efforts against the British fans, but Konta kept her focus and held for 4-5. She seemed now to be living with the Diyas power from the baseline, but on set point, someone let out a scream as Konta shaped for a volley, and she netted the ball. Kazakhstan was a set to the good, 6-4.
It was a timely reminder that Diyas, for all her lower ranking, had lost only once in 15 singles Fed Cup matches for her country. Could Konta come back to make it two? It did not look too hopeful as the Briton faced a break point in the very first game of the second set, but she mixed up the spin and pace to hold.
Now she mixed up things still more, dropping the ball shorter, coming to the net, and it drew errors for a break chance. Another drop brought her a third bite of the cherry, and Konta took it, 2-0.
Indeed the change of tactics began to work a treat. Konta extended her lead to 5-0 before Diyas got back on the board. She then broke the Briton, 5-2, but Konta did not back off, and held for the set, 6-3, with her 28th winner, an ace.
She got the first advantage in the decider, too, in the face of growing noise from the Kazakh support team. She made a decisive hold in the opening game, holding off break points, and then breaking to lead 2-1. Konta held for 3-1, and broke again with the match hitting two hours 20 minutes, 4-1.
Now Diyas called for a medical time out for her shoulder, and the physio worked: The Kazakh broke back for 2-4. However, Konta was in full flow, and did not drop another game, sealing the rubber, 6-2.
She afterwards admitted that she had begun a little slowly, and to praise the fans:
“It took me a bit of time to find my level, I felt I picked up some momentum in that first set, and going into second I felt I had more… Obviously tennis is quite traditional, but Fed Cup is very different…
“Fed Cup brings out a whole other level in players… I’m honestly just proud of how this team has prepared, and I feel so blessed to have all you here. It is the only time in the year when the sport transforms into something different.”
Now it was Katie Boulter’s turn, and she faced the highest-ranked woman in the tie, world No38 Yulia Putintseva.
The tall 22-year-old Briton had competed in six Fed Cup ties, where she was unbeaten in four singles and two doubles matches. And her big aggressive game reaped rewards from the feisty Putintseva, and she broke for the set, 6-3.
But Boulter hit a wall in the second set after the Kazakh broke for a 2-1 lead. Boulter went off court for a long medical time out, though it was unclear what the problem was: whether hip, back, or groin, she was struggling to serve with her former power. Putintseva broke again for 2-5 and the Kazakh served out the set, 6-2.
This did not look too optimistic for British hopes, but after a strong hold, Boulter found her power again, and broke for 2-0. She maintained her advantage, broke again, and after two hours of play, she was serving for the match at 5-3.
And the nerves took hold: a forehand wide, and a double fault brought up break points, and Boulter put a drop shot wide to hand the break back, 5-4. Putintseva tapped into her opponent’s nerves, and held to love with a perfect drop shot.
Boulter regrouped to hold for 6-5, and went for broke to work a break point, match-point, but Putintseva produced resilient tennis to hold off the challenge through deuces to reach a tie-break.
Boulter got the first advantage—indeed Putintseva did not lead until after they changed ends at 6-6, by which time, Boulter had failed to convert two more match points. But at the first opportunity, the Kazakh sealed the deal, 7-6(6), after two and a half hours.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the young Briton was in tears as she returned to her team: It had been a courageous fight-back that yielded three match points. A bitter pill, then, to swallow.
They will all return tomorrow for more of the same, and with that World Group place still firmly in the balance.
R3 Johanna Konta (46) vs Yulia Putintseva (38); H2H 2-1
R4 Katie Boulter (88) vs Zarina Diyas (107); H2H 0-0
R5 Heather Watson/Harriet Dart vs Anna Danilina/Galina Voskoboeva
NB If the third singles rubber determines the outcome of the tie, the fourth singles match will not be played, and the dead doubles rubber will be played instead.
If the fourth single match decides the outcome of the tie, the dead doubles rubber will also be played (with ‘no-Ad’ scoring).
World Group semi-finals
France vs Romania: Rouen, France (clay indoor), 1-1
Halep won her opening rubber, Caroline Garcia won hers to level the tie after one day.
Australia vs Belarus: Brisbane, Australia (hard outdoor), 1-1
Sabalenka won her opening rubber, while Barty levelled the tie by beating Azarenka.
World Group Play-offs
Czech Republic vs Canada: Prostejov, Czech Rep (clay indoor), 2-0
USA vs Switzerland: San Antonio, USA (hard indoor), 0-0
Germany beat Latvia: Riga, Latvia (hard indoor), 3-1
Belgium vs Spain: Kortrijk, Belgium (hard indoor), 1-1
World Group 2 Play-offs
GB vs Kazakhstan: London, GB (hard indoor), 1-1
Russia vs Italy: Moscow, Russia (clay indoor), 2-0
Japan vs Netherlands: Osaka, JPN (hard outdoor), 2-0
Slovakia vs Brazil: Bratislava, Slovakia (clay indoor), 2-0
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge