The desolation on the faces of the British team revealed just how close they had come to the Billie Jean King Cup final. At one stage last night, the doubles pairing of Alicia Barnett and Olivia Nicholls held a 3-1 lead in the decisive tie-break that would have carried them past Australia.
At the start of the week, no-one would have backed the British women to win their group – let alone come within the trophy match. But the full-throated support within Glasgow’s Emirates Arena pushed them to unsuspected heights. Until, as they reached for the final handhold, their grip slipped and they plummeted back to earth.
The architect of Australia’s narrow 2-1 victory was Storm Sanders, a 28-year-old who – like Barnett and Nicholls – is an unusually late developer in a sport so often dominated by teenage prodigies. First Sanders overcame Heather Watson in the opening singles match, then she was comfortably the best player on the doubles court as she stemmed the British advance.
If there was one individual shot that turned the tide, it was the perfectly judged lob that Sanders hoisted over Barnett to start reeling in Great Britain’s promising tie-break lead. That was the first of five straight points won by the Australians which turned 3-1 into 3-6, and so cut the home team’s odds of success from around 60 per cent to no more than 25.
“It really is a fantastic achievement to reach the semi-finals,” said the British captain Anne Keothavong, “but we felt we could have gone further. That’s why it hurts so much. The players can still hold their heads high, because they really have shown what they are capable of under a huge amount of pressure to deliver – and in the end it came down to a few points.”
Sanders might not be numbered among tennis’s glitterati, but she is a phenomenally whole-hearted competitor who has now won five out of six rubbers this week – three in singles and two in doubles. Her singles ranking of No238 is completely misleading, given that she thrashed the Netherlands’ Alison Van Uytvanck – a player who stands 174 places above her on the ladder – for the loss of just four games on Thursday.
Here she kicked off the Australian push, edging past Heather Watson by a 6-4, 7-6 margin in the opening singles match. Watson had been electric against Spain on Thursday, but admitted that she never quite recaptured her form yesterday.
“I felt a bit heavier today, missed a lot more first serves,” said Watson, who might have been encouraged when Sanders left the court for a lengthy medical timeout after the first set. Sanders was still moving indifferently when she returned, and faced points to go down 3-0 in the second set, but she managed to regroup and shrug off the pain.
“The first few games it was a little uncomfortable,” Sanders said afterwards. “I was like, ‘Okay, you’ve got two choices. Either you keep worrying about it and not play or you just suck it up and get on with it.’”
Once Sanders had completed her 6-4, 7-6 victory, Great Britain were back in the last-chance saloon where they had spent much of the group stage. Fortunately, this sort of pressure seems to inspire Harriet Dart, who continued her magnificent form by defeating the heavy-hitting Ajla Tomljanovic by a 7-6, 6-2 margin.
Dart has already beaten world No13 Paula Badosa this week, and competed strongly for periods of her meeting with reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina. This match looked a long shot on paper, with Tomljanovic standing at No33 in the rankings and Dart 98. But the home hope got off to a flyer, directing traffic from the baseline with her pacey backhand, and she never let Tomljanovic settle. “This has definitely given me a lot of confidence going into next year,” she said.
The match thus came down to the deciding doubles rubber. Sanders was partnered by Sam Stosur, the five-time slam champion who has retired from singles but has been playing this tournament for 19 years. Truth be told, she looked her age (38), but Sanders was so good that she carried them both to a 7-6, 6-7, 1-0 (10-6) victory.