India’s first ever World Group Playoffs appearance in the Billie Jean King Cup, after having qualified in Asia/Oceania in March 2020 at the erstwhile Fed Cup, is a mismatch by almost all the regular parameters.
Latvia’s top-ranked singles player Anastasija Sevastova is ranked 47 in the world with a career best ranking of world No 11. Their No 2 is Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 breakthrough French Open champion, ranked 52.
At the other end, India No 1, Ankita Raina, has a career best ranking of 160 while Karman Kaur Thandi is currently ranked 621 and is still on the comeback trail after a long injury layoff. Both are yet to play a singles main draw Grand Slam match.
India’s most seasoned player is Sania Mirza and given the competition format, she will only come in action if the team is alive in singles after four rubbers.
The task, in all fairness, is very challenging.
Yet, there’s an upbeat mood to the Indian camp and players. A big tournament, but also a huge opportunity to be pressure free and channel the underdog spirit.
“We are quite excited to be here, we have got the draw we like, it’s good for us that our No 1 player goes first,” team captain Vishal Uppal said at a virtual press conference ahead of the tie.
“Obviously it is going to be tough for us but we have been preparing well, we are enjoying the conditions here and we are ready to put up a tough fight.”
By her own admission and by her solid record at the Asian level, Raina plays her best tennis at this event and India would again expect her to punch above her weight when she takes on Ostapenko in the tie-opening match of the playoffs. Her contribution in singles and doubles was crucial for India to qualify for this stage.
“It’ a historic tie for us and we are glad to have this opportunity. We mostly play on hard courts, so I am ready and excited for it. I give my best when I represent my country, I am more than ready,” Raina said.
Though odds are against them, Uppal believes what may go in favour of the Indians is that the tie will be played on an indoor hard-court and behind closed doors due to the pandemic, which means crowd support for the home team will be absent. The Latvians surprisingly did not choose clay courts, more suited to their players, something the team captain laughingly thanked them for.
“We are more comfortable playing on hard courts than we are perhaps on clay. I think more than the courts, the fact that there will be no home crowd support may give us a chance. This is the first time we have got to this stage and the pressure that the home crowd could put won’t be there. I think we will be a little bit more at ease knowing that there won’t be people shouting at us,” Uppal added.
Both the Latvian players said that the home crowd will be missed but it won’t have much of a bearing on their performance.
“It is not fun for me to play without crowd. We are ready to go’’, said Ostapenko.
“It is tough without spectators at home. We are glad to play. We have to be at our best’’, added the 31-year-old Sevastova, saying that she had played on the courts from the age of 10 and will be at home.
Thandi said that the speed of the court didn’t matter given she and Raina have played most of their tennis on hard surfaces. “It is an opportunity to play against good players and I’m looking forward to it’’, the 22-year-old said.
Uppal chose to field Thandi over higher-ranked Rutuja Bhosale (419), who had played a crucial role in India’s qualifying tie in Dubai and said it was a tough call. Thandi had missed the last tie due to injury and said she is physically fit and feeling good.
“All my five players have worked hard. I felt Karman can give us something extra on day one. I have gone with my gut,” he said.
Raina had played against Sevastova way back in 2015 at home in Ahmedabad, in a ITF final defeat. Their journeys have been contrasting since then with Sevastova getting into top-50, powered by a crushing backhand. She even beat Serena Williams when Latvia played against US in 2020 Fed Cup Qualifiers.
The Latvia No 1 said that she knows Raina well and has watched a few Youtube videos of Thandi to get an idea about her game.
“I watched for fun,” she said with a laugh, adding, “I watched to know what are her weapons or weakness. It’s one thing to watch a video and different in real life. You know more when you are on court.”
On court, the stage is set for India to punch above their weight and make a mark in their first outing at the stage.
1) Ankita Raina vs Jelena Ostapenko
2) Karman Kaur Thandi vs Anastasija Sevastova.
3) Ankita Raina vs Anastasija Sevastova.
4) Karman Thandi vs Jelena Ostapenko
5) Sania Mirza/Ankita Raina vs Diana Marcinkevica/Daniela Vismane.
Matches to start at 8:30pm on Friday and 4:30pm IST on Saturday, to be telecast live on Eurosport in India.