In a simple sport usually contested head-to-head with only two individuals involved, the nuances of team tennis competitions so often lend themselves to unpredictability and chaos. Such drama unfolded freely on a cold afternoon in Prague as Great Britain fought admirably to push the Czech Republic all the way to an unlikely deciding fifth rubber in the Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers before finally losing 3-2.
The second day opened with Marketa Vondrousova picking Emma Raducanu apart 6-1, 6-1 as the Brit struggled with foot blisters in the second half of the match. But the unproven 16-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova was chosen to face Harriet Dart, a shocking decision that Dart took full advantage of, eventually closing out the victory 6-0, 5-7, 6-2. The home nation clinched the deciding doubles as Vondrousova and Karolina Muchova outclassed Dart and Katie Swan 6-1, 7-5.
Despite Raducanu admirably grinding past Tereza Martincova in her first pro clay-court match, the sheer quality produced by Vondrousova this weekend, whose level was far above anyone else, was a true reality check to the demands of top-level clay court tennis for the US Open champion. Throughout their hour on court, Vondrousova soaked up Raducanu’s attempts to attack with her supreme defence, she pulled Raducanu off the court with angles and peppered her with delicate drop shots.
After the first set, Raducanu took a medical timeout for a blister on her foot and she struggled to move until the end. She said the blisters began to affect her after her first match on Friday. “It was compromising every shot I had to play,” she said. “It’s very disappointing when you’re out there playing a rubber for your country and you feel completely redundant. But I can’t really do anything about it.”
Blessed with an abundance of options despite missing four of their top five players, Czech captain Petr Pala opted for the most dramatic choice possible by drafting in his fifth player, Fruhvirtova, ranked 170 in the world, for her Billy Jean King Cup debut rather than the three other players in the top 80 ranked higher than Dart with far more clay-court experience.
It turned out to be a truly horrendous decision. Dart entered the match determined to make up for her heavy loss to Vondrousova on Friday and as the higher-ranked player with far more experience, she imposed herself from the beginning against a tepid Fruhvirtova and played extremely well to lead 6-0, 3-0. Only Dart’s nerves allowed Fruhvirtova to be briefly competitive, but after squandering 6-0, 5-2 lead and two match points, Dart recovered well to seal the victory in three sets.
The tie came down to the doubles and, despite dealing with cramps in the final set of her singles contest, Dart quickly returned alongside Swan. It was, unsurprisingly, Vondrousova who took control and pulled the strings throughout the match alongside Muchova, who is returning from injury having reached the top 20 in singles last year. The British team were positive and resolute, recovering a late break and pushing deep into the second set, but the combined skill of two top-level players was too great and the Czechs confidently secured victory to move on.