Belgium open Finals campaign with victory as Minnen makes history

31/10/2021 16:00

Belgium began their Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Finals campaign with a 2-1 victory over Belarus as Minnen wrote her name into the competition's history books

By Ross McLean
Belgium open Finals campaign with victory as Minnen makes history

A new name to mark a new era. As Belgium began their Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Finals campaign with a 2-1 victory over 2017 finalists Belarus, a little piece of history now belongs to debutant Greet Minnen.

Following her straight-sets, 6-2 6-2, triumph over Iryna Shymanovich, Turnhout-born Minnen will forever have the billing as the first player to win a match in the new format of the Billie Jean King Cup Finals.

“It is really nice that I am a little part of the history of this competition,” said the 24-year-old, who arrived in Prague boasting a career-high world ranking of No. 69. “It was my first time playing for Belgium and I was really happy that I could give our country the first win of the day.

“I am playing really well the last few weeks and months and I’m rising up the rankings and doing well. I am happy that I can continue this during the Billie Jean King Cup Finals, and I hope I can continue this level and keep going.”

As opening days to a tournament go, this was a solid start for Belgium, although more subdued than it might have been due to a surprise doubles loss. Following Minnen’s triumph, Elise Mertens dispatched Aliaksandra Sasnovich to power Belgium into an unassailable lead before Vero Lapko and Sasnovich retaliated for Belarus.

Nevertheless, their triumph means the 2001 champions move into pole position in Group B ahead of their showdown with Australia tomorrow. Success against those in green and gold would see Belgium reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2011.

“We started really strongly and Greet played very well which made it easier for me with the team 1-0 up,” said Mertens. “I managed to get the win in the third set and we were really there as a team, supporting each other, and it really gave me the energy to keep going.

“In the doubles, Belarus played pretty strong and it was difficult to get the rhythm, so today we are happy to win singles and eventually take the win. The doubles wasn’t going our way, which can happen in tennis, but we’re happy that we won today.”

After two postponements and an 18-month delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Billie Jean King Cup Finals were finally underway this morning and Minnen was quick to make her and Belgium’s presence felt in the opening clash.

Pressure steadily built on the Shymanovich serve during the initial exchanges before Minnen breached her defences with back-to-back breaks which, combined with solid holds of her own serve, saw her surge into a commanding lead.

Shymanovich made moves to retaliate early in the second set, only for Minnen to prove a composed presence, twice breaking her rival’s serve in quick succession and cruising to a clinical victory with minimal fuss. Advantage, Belgium.

There is a sense of Belarus having unfinished business in this competition after suffering an agonising defeat to USA in the 2017 final and reaching the semi-finals two years later. They are, however, shorn of the services of box office duo Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka.

Following Shymanovich’s defeat, their hopes of making a winning start to the Finals rested, in the first instance, with Sasnovich as she locked horns with world No. 18 Mertens.

Victory would have granted Sasnovich sole ownership of third place on the list for most Billie Jean King Cup singles match-wins by a Belarusian player – ahead of Azarenka and Olga Barabanschikova. It was not to be.

Mertens – 70 places higher in the world rankings than her opponent – set the tone by breaking the Sasnovich serve in the very first game of the match, from where she was ruthless in the opening set, which she won 6-2.

Sasnovich, however, has shown in the past that she possesses impressive powers of recovery. During the 2020 Qualifiers, which saw Belarus defeat Netherlands to secure their place at these Finals, the 27-year-old brushed aside a 6-0 reverse in the opening set of the pivotal fourth match against Arantxa Rus to initiate a staggering comeback.

A fired-up Sasnovich, who was playing her 22nd tie for her nation, clearly fancied a repeat and, after failing to convert a break point at 4-3, hauled herself level in the match with a 6-4 second-set triumph.

A grandstand finish beckoned, but any Belarus momentum was doused by a break of serve in the opening game of the third, and despite Sasnovich refusing to go quietly, Mertens prevailed 6-2 4-6 6-2 to hand Belgium victory.

Belgium made a switch to their doubles roster with Mertens – today confirmed as the top-ranked doubles player on the planet once again – replacing Ysaline Bonaventure, reflecting captain Johan Van Herck’s desire for his nation to make as convincing a start to the Finals as possible.

“We wanted to play with our best team possible to get the third point because you never know how it goes tomorrow and we want to win every point in every match we play,” said Van Herck.

“We made the choice to play with our strongest team and that’s why we chose to play with Elise and not Ysaline. You never know how it is going to go. Obviously, if we win it is easy but, if we are not winning, every point can count and that’s why we made the choice.”

The plan backfired as Lapko and Sasnovich claimed the opening set 6-4. The Belarus counterpunch continued into the second as Mertens and Kirsten Flipkens failed to stem the tide, with Lapko and Sasnovich prevailing 6-4 6-3, in the process ensuring their nation chalked up their maiden match-win of the Finals, which could well prove significant as Group B unfolds.

“It was really important to stay alive and get that point because you never know with other matches how it will turn out, so it was really important,” said Lapko, who is ranked No. 238 in the doubles world rankings.

"We managed to show a really good level of game from both sides. I honestly didn’t expect it was going to be both of us. When you are playing doubles, often someone is up and someone is down, but it was really fantastic from both of us.

“I am really happy for myself that I could show this level of game and I am really impressed with how Aliaksandra played after a tough loss.”