India No 1 Ankita Raina and veteran Sania Mirza will spearhead India’s five-member team for the Billie Jean King Cup (formerly known as Fed Cup) World Group Play-offs away tie against Latvia.

The team includes Karman Kaur Thandi, Zeel Desai, and Rutuja Bhosale while Riya Bhatia, who was a playing member last year, will be the reserve player. Vishal Uppal will continue as the captain.

The All India Tennis Association selection committee picked the team after a virtual meeting on Tuesday.

The two-day away tie will be played from April 16 on the indoor hard courts at the National Tennis Centre, Lielupe, Jurmala.

India had qualified for the World Group Play-offs for the first time after finishing second in the Asia/Oceania Group I tie, held in Dubai in March 2020 while Latvia lost 2-3 to USA in their group.

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“It’s a big boost for the team since we have never been there,” said captain Vishal Uppal.

“All of us are looking forward to this tie, Sania would also be keen. It will be a building block for women tennis in India. We will put pressure and that can make the mightiest crumble,” added the captain.

The tie will be a tough test for the Indians as Latvia are expected to be led by former French Open champion and world No 53 Jelena Ostapenko along with 2018 US Open semifinalist Anastasija Sevastova, who is ranked 56 now but was placed 11th in February 2018. They had run tthe Serena-Williams led USA close in the Qualifiers tie last year.

Uppal said all he is expecting from the tie is that his players give their best.

“If we succeed, nothing like it, if not, we will be richer in experience. There are no two ways, we want to win but if we play best tennis, that will help women’s tennis in India. That will make me happy.”

India’s hopes will lie on Raina, who has a knack for punching above her weight and has done extremely well at this tournament in the past, to stretch the tie deep.

Unlike the Davis Cup, where doubles is played as third match after the two singles and before the two reverse singles, in the Billie Jean King Cup format, doubles is played as the last match. That way, Mirza’s experience will count only if the other Indian players can stretch the tie to the last match.

Asked why Desai (ranked 614) was preferred over higher-ranked Bhatia (359), a selection committee source said recent results of the players were considered before making a decision.

“While Riya Bhatia is ranked second in India behind Ankita, the committee picked Zeel because she is in good form and has better results. Also, we are looking at future. Zeel plays solid tennis and has it in her to put rivals under pressure,” a source in the committee told PTI.

“So in a format where you have four singles matches to play, you want your best players to be in playing side. Karman also has that X factor. She has a big game and can hurt rivals.

“Karman missed out the last time because of injury. It’s her chance to do well,” the source added.

The World Group Play-offs of the tournament, previously known as Fed Cup, have been postponed twice earlier due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With PTI Inputs