‘The King is dead! Long live the Queen!’
Andy Murray’s announcement earlier this year that sooner or later he will have to retire because of his ongoing hip problems had left British tennis fans wondering who could possibly fill the giant gap that he will leave behind. Fortunately, Johanna Konta’s Fed Cup heroics suggest that she might just be able to replace Murray in their affections.
Konta finally has the historic Fed Cup triumph that she has sought for so long. And she achieved it in spectacular style. Her two singles victories this weekend for Great Britain against Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas and Yulia Putintseva were the foundation of the British team’s 3-1 victory, which earned them promotion to the elite World Group for the first time since 1993. Katie Boulter then provided a thrilling confirmation of the huge strides she has made this year by besting Diyas in the final singles rubber to ensure that Britain won the tie.
Konta’s Fed Cup performances for Great Britain have gone up a notch or two in 2019. She demonstrated extraordinary resilience in her previous Fed Cup performance in February, winning three successive three-setters in as many days to enable Britain to beat Serbia, win their qualifying group and earn a shot at a place in the World Group. She had actually collapsed through exhaustion during the decisive match against Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic, but somehow recovered to win it.
Embed from Getty ImagesAgainst Kazakhstan at London’s Copper Box Arena, Konta did not have to dig quite so deep, but she still had to rally from a set down on both days to claim hard-fought three set victories. Her recovery from 3-5 down in the deciding set against Putintseva on the Sunday was particularly impressive. She broke Putintseva when the Kazakh #1 was serving for the match, before reeling off three more games in a row to secure victory.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Konta’s superb performances for Britain in the Fed Cup this year is how they have contrasted so dramatically with her play on the WTA Tour. In team tennis, she has been literally unbeatable. Even when she has appeared to be staring defeat in the face, she has lifted her game to new heights to somehow pull off the victory that her team needs.
That was especially true against Putintseva, twice a quarterfinalist at Roland Garros in recent seasons, who, at world #38, is above Konta in the WTA singles standings. In contrast, on the WTA Tour, Konta has struggled badly to find a level of consistency since her excellent season in 2017, which saw her manufacture a thrilling run to the Wimbledon semifinals. As a result, she now finds herself at a relatively low ranking of world #46.
Of course, Konta is not the first tennis player to raise their game while playing for their country. Murray himself is a classic example. It is often forgotten that his first major, if not quite Major, victory came while playing for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics, where he avenged his heartbreaking Wimbledon final defeat against Roger Federer by demolishing the Swiss in the gold medal match.
And even after Murray had made his Major breakthrough by winning the 2012 US Open and Wimbledon a year later, he found himself exiled from the Grand Slam winners club for the next three years as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic dominated the sport. But in that fallow period, he managed to guide Great Britain, almost singlehandedly, to victory in the 2015 Davis Cup, Britain’s first success in the tournament since 1936.
Of course, Konta has a long way to go to match the incredible heights that Andy Murray reached, both as an individual and as a team player. Nevertheless, the hope is that she will be able to take her wonderful Fed Cup form forward, on the WTA Tour and in her role as the on-court leader of the new-look British Fed Cup team.
Britain’s return to the World Group also comes at the most opportune of times, with the Fed Cup set for a Davis Cup-style makeover, which will most likely result in a week-long Fed Cup Finals week, involving 12 nations, in the spring of 2020. As newcomers to the World Group, Great Britain will almost certainly not be guaranteed a place at the Finals, but they should at least be offered the opportunity to qualify, with a place in a play-off for those Finals likely to be scheduled for next February.
Finally, after so many decade in the doldrums, Great Britain can genuinely hope that they have a women’s team to compete with the very best in the world. Konta is obviously the lynchpin of the team, but it appears that Fed Cup captain Anne Keothavong has finally found the reliable #2 that every successful Fed Cup team needs in Katie Boulter.
Embed from Getty ImagesBoulter demonstrated Konta-like fortitude in recovering from the devastation of throwing away a commanding 4-0 third-set lead against Putintseva in her first singles rubber. But when she found herself in the same position against Diyas in the decisive fourth singles match, she showed absolutely no sign of making the same mistake, racing through the decider to complete a 6-7 6-4 6-1 win.
Every successful Fed Cup team requires depth, especially to cope with the possible absence of a star player such as Konta, and so it is to be hoped that over the next year Great Britain’s two other potential singles players can return to the sort of form they have showed in the past. Heather Watson, once the undisputed British #1, was in the squad against Kazakhstan, but did not play.
However, she could prove a useful weapon on the doubles court, with a mixed doubles title at Wimbledon to her name. The doubles is likely to prove absolutely pivotal going forward, as it seems unlikely, even with Konta’s remarkable run in team tennis, that Great Britain can regularly expect to win three of the four singles matches against World Group opposition.
Laura Robson, the other potential starlet of British tennis, is still finding her way back to form on the WTA circuit after years dogged by injuries. However, she is still only 25 and if she, too, can regain some of the form that took her to an Olympic mixed doubles silver medal alongside Andy Murray in 2012, not to mention a junior Wimbledon crown in 2008, she could yet prove to be another key asset for Great Britain, perhaps playing alongside Watson in the doubles.
For now, however, it is enough for Great Britain to dream again. After so long in the shadows, not just the one cast by the formidable British Fed Cup teams of the past, who might not have won the tournament but reached the final four times between 1967 and 1981, but also that cast by the Andy Murray-inspired Davis Cup team in recent years, they can finally look forward to the World Group. And if Konta can continue to be the figurehead that she has been for British women’s tennis in 2019, then don’t rule them out of making their presence felt amongst the giants.
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