Billie Jean King Cup Preview: India face stiff task against Latvia in maiden playoff tie

India take on higher-ranked Latvia in their first-ever Billie Jean King Cup playoff tie. The matches will be played on indoor hard courts in an empty stadium.

Latvia (L) and India (R) teams at the draw ceremony for the Billie Jean King Cup tie. Images: Tennis Latvia

India’s Fed Cup team had been languishing in the doldrums for quite a while. They were playing regional Group I ties on a regular basis recently but not getting past them to move up to the World Playoffs. That changed when Ankita Raina led the team to a 2-1 win over Indonesia in Dubai.

That was 13 months ago. The world was a very different place back then – there was no mass COVID-19 across the world, tennis had been going on as it does – busy calendar on a weekly basis, the women’s team event was called Fed Cup and Raina hadn’t featured in a major.

Now, as the team landed in Riga followed by a trip to the scenic resort town of Jurmala, the pandemic has taken a serious toll on the world and tennis at large. National Tennis Centre will be empty when India and Latvia take centre stage in the Billie Jean King Cup, a rebranding of the event.

First up on court will be Raina, who became the fifth Indian woman to make the main draw of a major at the Australian Open, against the 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko. Latvia’s top-ranked player Anastasia Sevastova goes up next against Karman Kaur Thandi.

On the second day, the singles rubbers will be reversed with Raina facing Sevastova and Thandi up against Ostapenko. Raina will play her third match in two days when she partners Sania Mirza in doubles against Daniela Visamane and Diana Marcinkevica in the last match.

The tie will be played on indoor hard courts and not clay which would have been tougher for the visiting team to get past. A fact that wasn’t missed by the team’s non-playing captain Vishal Uppal.

“Initially when I saw that we were playing on indoor hards (hardcourts) I was surprised. I thought that we will be playing on indoor or outdoor clay. But then again, the Latvian team have some very highly ranked players. It does kind of give us a better chance and so, thank you Latvia!” said the former India player Uppal in a virtual press conference.

Beyond the court surface, the absence of fans could play a role in the evening. The matches will be played across five rubbers instead of the three that India are accustomed to.

“We are more comfortable on hard courts but more than that the fact that there will be no home support gives us a slightly better chance. This is the first time we have got to this stage and just the pressure that a home crowd can put on us won’t be there. We can be a bit more at peace knowing that there won’t be a crowd of 5000-7000 people screaming at you but then it also takes the fun out of a cup tie,” said Uppal.

Raina said she would prefer having a crowd when playing at home but it doesn’t make a difference to her much.

“When you are playing at home you would like to have a crowd otherwise doesn’t make a difference. For them probably they are used to playing with the crowd so it could be good for us,” she said.

Raina has a tough task at hand. She goes up first against a player that has played at the highest stage of tennis to open the tie; followed by a player she faced, and lost to, in 2015, and finishes off in the doubles alongside Mirza. The Raina-Mirza pairing trained in Dubai coming into this tie to finetune their doubles skills while the veteran passed some tips along to her younger partner.

“I’m excited for the tie, I always play the best when I play for the country. This is our first time in the playoffs and we are really pumped. We are ready to give more than our best,” said Raina.

Sevastova, 2018 US Open semi-finalist, is a vital member of the Latvian team. She handed Serena Williams her first Fed Cup singles defeat in the qualifiers in 2020 and comes as the player to beat. She played Raina in 2015 at a Futures Event final in Ahmedabad. And that win turned things around for a player that had retired in 2013.

“It’s been six years (since that match). The only thing is that I know, how (Raina) plays a little bit,” Sevastova says. “Those were different conditions. We played in India; it was hot and outdoors, on quick hard courts. Here it’s slower and indoors.”

To counter Karman, the relatively unknown name in the pack, Sevastova turns to YouTube. “I watched for fun,” she said with a laugh. “I watched to know what are her weapons or weakness (sic). It’s one thing to watch a video and different in real life. You know more when you are on the court.”

Order of Play: Latvia vs India

Day 1 (16 April, 8.30 PM IST, Live on Eurosport and Eurosport HD)

Ankita Raina vs Jelena Ostapenko

Karman Kaur Thandi vs Anastasija Sevastova

Day 2 (17 April, 4.30 PM IST, Live on Eurosport and Eurosport HD)

Ankita Raina vs Anastasija Sevastova

Karman Thandi vs Jelena Ostapenko

Sania Mirza/Ankita Raina vs Diana Marcinkevica/Daniela Vismane

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