Ukraine progress and dream of Billie Jean King Cup glory – and more borsch

16/04/2021 17:00

Ukraine will compete in the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifiers after world No. 5 Elina Svitolina completed a nerve-racking victory over Japan’s Yuki Naito in Chornomorsk

By Ross McLean
Ukraine progress and dream of Billie Jean King Cup glory – and more borsch

Ukraine will compete in the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifiers after world No. 5 Elina Svitolina completed a nerve-racking victory over Japan’s Yuki Naito on the clay courts of Chornomorsk.

After a routine opening set for Svitolina, the superb and extremely composed Naito retaliated in the second before fortunes fluctuated almost at will in the third. Ultimately, however, Svitolina’s quality told and she prevailed in the third-set tie-break.

Svitolina’s triumph, her second of this play-off tie, propelled Ukraine into an unassailable 3-0 lead against their inexperienced, but incredibly gutsy, visitors and confirmed her nation’s elevation to the higher echelons of the competition.  

The next time Ukraine take to the court and compete in Billie Jean King Cup, they will be a solitary victory away from a place in the tournament’s Finals and a shot at silverware.

Ukraine’s trophy-winning potential can only be judged when they get to the latter stages of the competition and do battle with some of the heavyweight nations and those regularly in the hunt for honours.

However, there would appear a deep-rooted belief within the Ukrainian camp that over the next couple of years this group of players can go the distance and make a real impact in this competition and on the international stage.

It is a vibe which has been apparent all week and evidenced in many ways, whether it be the togetherness of the team around the hotel, the chemistry during a pre-tie game of Olympic charades or within formal interviews.

It was a message reinforced by Svitolina in the immediate aftermath of her tense 6-2 4-6 7-6(3) victory over world No. 172 Naito.

“I am convinced we have a great team,” said Svitolina. “Everyone has a high ranking and high performance and the team is very balanced. I think we have a good chance to play and compete against the best teams.

“We are very close and that motivates each of us to go for more and we have a really warm spirit which is really amazing and pushes us to get better results.

“It has been really nice to get together again this week and we have had a lot of fun. I’m lucky that I got to play on this court again and also that we have had Ukrainian food throughout the week, which I have really enjoyed as I miss it so much on Tour.

“I love borsch and that is what I have been eating every day and maybe that is the secret to success.”

Given they entered this tie ranked No. 29 on the Billie Jean King Cup Nations Ranking, their lowest position since they were ranked 30th between November 2015 and February 2016, the stark fact is that Ukraine have work to do.

But in two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist Svitolina they have a figurehead and someone with the capacity to inspire, while rising star Marta Kostyuk, who is only 18 years old, is ranked within the top 100. For her part, Kostyuk is convinced about the team’s future trajectory.

“I honestly believe that as long as Elina is playing, we can win Billie Jean King Cup,” said Kostyuk.

“I believe it is possible and we are going to do our best to do it. Of course, that would be amazing as all you want to do is win, and it would look and feel more special if you do it as a team as opposed to by yourself.

“It would be an accomplishment for a lot of people after a lot of hard work to bring everything together. If we could do it, it would be the most special thing in my life.

“But I do really believe this team can achieve some special things over the coming years. If I say it, it really does mean I believe it. We have a very strong team and it’s just building up and up.

“There are also some younger players coming through and we will know about them in the coming years and it’s going to make us even stronger. We will go step by step – it’s all part of the journey.”

Only time will tell whether Ukraine can realise the promise which they clearly believe they have. All they could do here was overcome Japan and make sure they advanced to the Qualifiers. In those terms, their time in Chornomorsk represents a successful mission.

It was a win set up on the opening day as Svitolina defeated Chihiro Muramatsu, who sits a colossal 218 places lower than her illustrious opponent in the world rankings, and Kostyuk overcame Naito.

Japan, however, more than played their part in the tie. All four of their team members – Naito, Muramatsu, Shiho Akita and Himari Sato – were Billie Jean King Cup rookies having never previously featured in the competition, but they will be all the richer for this experience.

Muramatsu, while soundly beaten in the end, was not overawed by the challenge of facing Svitolina, nor today was Naito who more than rose to the challenge, while the team’s mantra of having fun and valuing the exposure to national service shone through.

Hours after her defeat, Naito remained disappointed that she was unable to take the final step when serving for the match at 6-5 in the third set, but, once the dust settles, the 20-year-old can look back on how she pushed a player of Svitolina's calibre to the limit. 

“I am about 10 per cent proud of myself, the other 90 per cent is me still thinking it was shocking because I had 6-5 in the third set,” said Naito. “Throughout the match I was just thinking, ‘she’s not Elina Svitolina’ and just tried to play the match I had to and not think that she was a top 5 player.

“For sure, it will be good experience that I was able to play against Elina Svitolina. I have seen that my tennis can play against her. I am still disappointed how I played towards the end but we will talk about it with my coaches, think about it and try again.

“It has been a wonderful week, however. It was my first Billie Jean King Cup appearance and my teammates and the whole team have been wonderfully supportive every second. We have enjoyed it.”

It was a tie – Ukraine’s first at home since 2017 – which had a bit of everything. It was the first since the competition’s rebrand and renaming to get underway and, as such, Svitolina scored the first point of the Billie Jean King Cup era.

The showdown also proved a fitting occasion for the 26-year-old, who won both her matches at a venue – the Elite Tennis Club – where she used to train in her youth, having been born a short distance away in Odessa.

If Ukraine are to achieve their lofty ambitions over the next few years, Svitolina is likely to be front and centre of that silverware charge. The next step has been taken; another progress report will be filed after next year’s Qualifiers.