Down a set to two doubles players of the highest quality in the deciding match of the Billie Jean King Cup semi-finals, Alicia Barnett and Olivia Nicholls found themselves facing by far the most difficult challenge of their careers. Still, at no point did they betray even a flicker of negative energy. They furiously strategised, they battled hard and they so nearly dragged themselves over the line.
In the end it was not enough. Despite their best efforts, Great Britain’s rousing, unlikely Billie Jean King Cup run came to an end in the semi-finals as Australia beat them 2-1 at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow to reach the final for the second time in three editions.
In the opening encounter, Heather Watson was unable to replicate her earlier form as she fell 6-4, 7-6 (3) to an inspired Storm Sanders. Harriet Dart quickly followed, again rising to the pressure as Britain’s No 1 by defeating Ajla Tomljanovic 7-6 (3), 6-2 to keep them in the fight. The doubles pitted Barnett and Nicholls against Storm Sanders and Sam Stosur, with the Australians barely holding on for a 7-6 (1), 6-7 (5), 10-6 win
After five long days of play at the Billie Jean King Cup finals in Glasgow, for the first time this week all corners of the arena buzzed with tension and anticipation as the hosts fought for a place in the final.
On paper, they could not have asked for a better first opponent. Sanders is ranked No 237 in singles and she had compiled a 0-8 record at tour level this year. But team competitions so often inspire players beyond their usual limits, as it has done for the Australians all week. Sanders overpowered Watson in two tight sets, improving her singles record here to 3-0.
Two days after her career-best win over Spain’s Paula Badosa, Dart entered the court fully aware that a defeat would seal her team’s demise. Once again, she shouldered the pressure admirably well. Dart marked her ground by constantly taking the ball early, determined to control the baseline and steal time from her opponent. Even after relinquishing a 5-2 first-set lead, Dart continued to trust her offence and she played a brilliant match to keep her team alive.
“[This competition] just brings the best out of me,” said Dart, whose mother, Susannah, has been flying back and forth from London to watch her daughter in action.
“I love playing in front of a home crowd, and I feel like I have really been feeding off my teammates and everyone here. It just makes me want to do really well.”
Having already played such a pivotal role in Great Britain’s success this week, Barnett and Nicholls stared down two great doubles players – the world No 10 in the format, Sanders, and the former No 1 Stosur – without fear.
They played so well, generating ample chances and continually fighting back after disappointments. After holding a set point at 6-5 in the first set before losing a one-sided tiebreak, they recovered in the second to generate two further set points on their serve. Although they squandered them, they fought through the second-set tiebreak, with Nicholls pulling off a brilliant reflex volley to take the set.
Down 3-6 in the deciding match tiebreak, the British duo looked for one last recovery, dragging themselves back to 6-6. But the Australians, armed with greater firepower and nerve, always had an answer in the important moments.
Although the week ended with a brutal loss, it marked the end of a valuable journey in which Great Britain took advantage of the fortunate wildcard they received as event hosts, underlining the abilities of the country’s female tennis players beyond Emma Raducanu. They finish the 2022 season on an extremely positive note, particularly Dart, Barnett and Nicholls, with the hope that there is even more to come in 2023.
“For sure this has definitely given me a lot of confidence going into next year,” said Dart. “To be able to two days ago play great and then do it again also shows me that it’s not by chance. It’s the continued work. Keep plugging away and good things can happen.”