GB coach Anne Keothavong ready for ‘must-win’ Billie Jean King Cup play-off

Anne Keothavong, the captain of Great Britain’s Billie Jean King Cup team, believes her players face a “must-win tie” against Mexico in this weekend’s play-offs as they attempt to remain in the top tier for another year.

The tie, which takes place on indoor hard courts of the LTA National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, was moved from its original billing on clay in Mexico because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It will mark the first full week of competition since the event was rebranded from the Fed Cup.

“We’ve got a great shot of winning this tie,” Keothavong said. “I think we are the favourites, there’s no skirting around that. For me, it is a must-win tie against Mexico. We’ve got a home advantage, albeit behind closed doors, but the players are familiar with their surroundings. In practice this week the level has been very high from all the players. It’s been very competitive and it wasn’t an easy decision who to put in on Friday.”

This is a tie as notable for who is not present as who is. Britain’s No 1, Johanna Konta, made herself unavailable for a second successive Billie Jean King Cup tie because of the stress that quickly changing surfaces would put on her chronic knee issues as the tour moves to the clay court season. Francesca Jones, who became a sensation in Australia for her soaring qualification despite a rare genetic condition, opted to compete at the ITF W60 tournament in Portugal this week instead of her first Billie Jean King Cup team. Mexico are also missing their top-ranked player, the world No 141 Renata Zarazúa, who opted to compete at a WTA event in Charleston.

Heather Watson resumes her role as the team’s reference point, and a victory would yield a notable distinction for her. She is playing for her 22nd match win in the competition, which would bring her level with Keothavong and move her second behind Virginia Wade in terms of all-time wins for the Great Britain team.

“I think she’s a little bit of everything,” said Katie Boulter of Watson. “She’s a great teammate, she’s great to have on the team, she’s super-encouraging and also she’s just there when you need her. She’s someone who’s gonna get behind you.”

A return to the Billie Jean King Cup is particularly notable for Boulter as she attempts to return to the top 100 after falling as low as 441 following a stress fracture to her back. It was at the Billie Jean King Cup in 2019 that she aggravated her back during a decisive win against Kazakhstan. The pandemic has only made climbing the rankings more difficult, both because of the limited number of lower level tournaments and the travel restrictions.

Boulter has instead bounced between top-level WTA events with her protected ranking and lowly $15k ITF tournaments. In recent months she has taken a set off of the Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka and lost against the world No 683. There have been modest victories, including wins against Coco Gauff in Australia and the No 86-ranked Kristyna Pliskova. She anticipates more to come.

“Honestly, I think I’m beyond my level. I think I’m a better place than I have been for a very long time, even when I was at my career high,” the 24-year-old said. “I feel like I’m playing better tennis than I was back then, more consistently as well. I feel like there is a long road ahead of me to be back in the right place and push on from that.”

Boulter, currently the world No 291, will open the tie against Marcela Zacarías on Friday before the No 68-ranked Watson faces Giuliana Olmos, ranked No 434. Due to Prince Philip’s funeral, there will be a one-hour pause in the schedule on Saturday between 3pm and 4pm. Harriet Dart (the world No 148), Jodie Burrage (241) and Katie Swan (249) make up the rest of the British team.

Despite the overall gulf in ranking and ability, the away team’s spirit is notable in a competition that has produced many great upsets in the past, a point made by Zacarías.

“I believe that anything can happen,” the 27-year-old said. “We all know how tennis is, having better rankings or results don’t mean anything.

“Everyone is head to head on the court … they have the advantage on a fast indoor court. But we’re playing well, prepared and feeling good.

“We’re Mexicans. We go for everything. We’re not going to stop until the last point. We are warriors. We’re prepared to leave everything on the court.”