After two decades languishing in the regional stages of Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, Great Britain are beginning to show the first green shoots of recovery with their run to the World Group II play-offs in 2012.
The team’s new captain Judy Murray - best known to most people as the mother of Andy Murray - guided the Brits through the Europe/Africa Zone Group I event in February for the first time since they were relegated from the World Group in 1993.
The subsequent trip to face Sweden in April proved a step too far, but Great Britain had already shown enough potential to indicate that Judy Murray and Co will be back to compete for promotion in the years to come.
‘Good week’ in Eilat
The week-long event in Eilat is notoriously difficult to get out of as 15 nations all compete for two spots in the World Group II play-offs. The teams are first split into four round-robin pools with the leaders advancing to the shoot-out for promotion places.
Having made her Fed Cup debut in 2002, Elena Baltacha has served her time at this level of the competition, so the British No. 1 was delighted to finally lead the team into the next round with pool wins over Portugal, Netherlands and Israel before a decisive 2-0 victory against Austria.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” said Baltacha, speaking to FedCup.com. “We had such a good week. It’s very difficult to get out of that Group because every day you have to perform at your highest and obviously you need to get the wins. We stuck really well as a team and got through it, and we had such a good laugh on the way as well.”
Sweden ‘too good for us’
Great Britain’s reward was a winnable away clash with Sweden in the World Group II play-offs. The Brits, however, got off to a bad start and defeats for Baltacha and Anne Keothavong on day one put the Swedes on the verge of victory.
Laura Robson was brought in for the first of the reverse singles rubbers on day two, but despite a brave performance the young left-hander was out-gunned by Swedish No. 1 Sofia Arvidsson in three sets.
Baltacha and Heather Watson won a consolation doubles point for the visitors to leave the final score at 4-1 in Sweden’s favour, a result that means Great Britain will go back to where they started - Europe/Africa Zone Group I - for the 2013 season.
“Unfortunately the Swedes were a bit too good for us to be honest,” admitted Baltacha, “but hopefully we’ll get through in Eilat again next year and then we’ll be back in the play-offs again. That will be really nice.”
Murray excels in captain’s role
Baltacha believes Murray made a big difference during Great Britain’s Fed Cup campaign this year, bringing a wealth of knowledge and belief to the team that has provided a springboard for success.
“It’s been absolutely unbelievable,” said Baltacha. “Judy brought a lot of experience, tactics, video analysis, which has helped me to develop as a player. She brought lots of positive energy. She’s a good laugh as well and she’s a lovely lady, so it was a real honour to be part of it.”
Youngsters offer depth
The change in fortunes for the British team has not only coincided with Murray taking charge, but also the emergence of talented teenagers Robson and Watson, who combined with great effect on the doubles court in 2012.
The two young Brits, both former junior Grand Slam winners, are currently ranked just outside the Top 100 and provide excellent back-up for the experienced duo of Baltacha and Keothavong, who have formed the nucleus of the British team for the last ten years.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Baltacha, describing the addition of Robson and Watson in the side. “Especially for our captain Judy Murray. It gives Judy a much fuller team, so she has more options to decide and to pick who she believes is good for whatever particular style player [is required].
“It’s good because we can all play singles and Laura and Heather play a really good doubles, so it’s very good for our team and hopefully the girls will keep getting better and keep growing, then we’ll have a much stronger team, even though we’re already strong.”
Brits aiming for promotion in 2013
Despite their encouraging season, Great Britain will begin next year’s campaign back in Europe/Africa Zone Group I, although with the experience they now possess Baltacha is hopeful that the team can go one better and secure promotion in 2013.
“We’re back in Eilat again at the start of the year,” said Baltacha. “We’ve done it before - this year - so hopefully we can do it again next year, that will be the main goal. Then hopefully if we can get into the play-offs we can make that next move, rather than going back into that Group again.”
> Watch the full video interview with Elena Baltacha on the Fed Cup Facebook page.