RTF down Switzerland to claim fifth Billie Jean King Cup crown

05/11/2021 16:00

Russian Tennis Federation has been crowned the 2021 Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas World Champions, beating Switzerland 2-0 to clinch their fifth title

By Michael Beattie
RTF down Switzerland to claim fifth Billie Jean King Cup crown

A class apart, a team in every sense of the word, and a star is born: Russian Tennis Federation has been crowned the 2021 Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas World Champions, beating Switzerland 2-0 to clinch their fifth title.

Six years on from their previous final appearance, also here at O2 Arena, RTF proved a class apart through five ties to claim the storied trophy, the first winners of the revamped Finals format and the first winners under the competition's new name.

RTF returned to Prague with the pedigree, with four titles to their name – all won since the turn of the century – and with five players ranked inside the top 50 at captain Igor Andreev’s disposal. Their opening 3-0 win over Canada underlined their status as the side to beat; in the end, they dropped just two matches over five ties en route to the title, drawing level with Spain in the all-time champions' honour roll, behind USA, Czech Republic and Australia.

"It’s an historical win for us," captain Igor Andreev said. "It’s been a long time without any trophies in team tennis. I’m very proud and very happy for the girls, the way they played. They’re amazing, they’re heroes, and they achieved this because they’re a team – a real team – and real friends."

For Switzerland, the wait for a first Billie Jean King Cup title goes on. Martina Hingis was out on court on their first final appearance back in 1998; 23 years on, she was on the bench as a side anchored by Olympic champion Belinda Bencic and ably backed up by both Viktorija Golubic and Jil Teichmann emerged from the toughest of group-stage draws before beating Australia to return to the title match.

In the end, however, RTF were not to be denied, their strength in depth proving decisive as Liudmila Samsonova – a Billie Jean King Cup debutant here in Prague – stepped in to deputise for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and seal a 2-0 victory after the second singles, downing Bencic 3-6 6-3 6-4 on the back of Daria Kasatkina’s 6-2 6-4 victory over Teichmann.

"I have too many emotions now – I feel like I’m freezing," Samsonova said. "It’s unbelievable, I’m unbelievably happy. Today was an incredible fight – a much more nervous game. It was more than tennis."

Last-minute switch

There was drama before a ball had been struck in Saturday’s final as RTF announced a late change to their singles line-up, with word spreading throughout the O2 Arena less than 30 minutes before the players were due on court for the opening ceremony.

Following assessment by the independent doctor on site in Prague, Pavlyuchenkova was ruled out with a flare-up of patellar tendinitis in her left knee and replaced by Samsonova, setting up her third clash with Bencic in 2021 – the youngster having won their previous two meetings. It added an extra level of spice as the teams lined up for the anthems, but once the lights came up, the serious action began.

Kasatkina sets the tone

On Friday, Teichmann had delivered an all-but perfect opening set in the Swiss semi-final win over Australia, but her unblemished Billie Jean King Cup record was ended by Kasatkina, who dished out her own dose of dominance early in the opening match and raced out to a 5-0 lead.

It was as clean a start as Kasatkina could have hoped for, keeping the error count down as Teichmann’s quickly stacked up. She got on the board late in the set, denying the RTF No. 2 the chance to serve out a bagel before collecting her first hold of the match, but still ended the opener with 16 unforced errors to her opponent’s four.

The late rally in the first set marked the start of the match as a contest, and Teichmann kept herself in the second as her aggressive play began punching holes in Kasatkina’s defence. But the world No. 28 rarely looked flustered and was first to break for a 4-3 lead, and while Teichmann hit back in the next game she was undone once more to leave Kasatkina serving for the match.

This time there would be no mistake, Kasatkina thumping her chest in celebration after Teichmann steered one final forehand into the tramlines, then jumping over the barriers into the arms of her teammates in celebration.

Emotional win

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Kasatkina said. “I played the first match [for RTF], now I’m playing in the final, and I’m happy that I’ve brought this very important point to my team.”

The beginning [of the match] was very important. We were both nervous, but I think I managed that a little bit better, and I was not missing. It’s different to start a match 4-0 up or 4-0 down – I that was the key.”

With RTF one win from the title, the two players to have reached the final with four wins to their names stepped onto court. Olympic champion Bencic is no stranger to such a stage, but Samsonova was facing the Swiss with silverware on the line for the second time in 2021. The 22-year-old beat Bencic to claim her maiden WTA title in Berlin earlier this year – her second victory in their personal head-to-head, both played this season.

Tension and drama

Samsonova snatched an early break in this, their crucial third clash, but Bencic responded with an instant break back, and the volume in the O2 Arena stepped up a notch as both players began producing tennis befitting the high stakes.

There was tension too, the Swiss almost caught out by Samsonova’s lengthy lag between first and second serves, at one point turning her back during the ball toss only to pivot and see the delivery on its way. It would become a running sideshow to the match as the Swiss bench, no doubt surprised by the late change in opponent for their No. 1, asking for something to be done about the delays.

But when it mattered, it was Bencic who kept a clear head. Another look at break point presented itself at 3-4 and, having taken a brief pause herself before Samsonova’s second serve at 30-40, fired a bullet return that the world No. 40 could put in the net. A hold to love, sealed with an ace, and the first set was over.

Turning the tables

It often seems that Samsonova plays with little margin, particularly in the power stakes. But her full-blooded serves and ground stokes can be twinned to telling effect with some deft touch at net, as she showed against Sloane Stephens on Friday.

Against Bencic, however, she found herself pushed deeper and deeper, the Swiss denying her the chance to step into the court and often ending points with a drop shot as the 22-year-old foundered behind the baseline.

Bencic looked to seize the initiative at the start of the second set, but Samsonova saved four break points in the opening game, steadied the ship and committed to patrolling the baseline. A nip-and-tuck set went the way of the Italian-raised Olenegorsk native as she pounced on a loose game from Bencic to lead 4-2, sending the match into a decider.

Just as she had against Stephens, Samsonova turned the tables in dramatic fashion when it mattered, peppering the baseline and driving Bencic to distraction while driving her further back in the cavernous court.

Where the Swiss had missed her chance to break early in the second, the RTF No. 4 made no mistake at the start of the third, stealing the opening game and almost securing a second break at 2-0. Bencic survived, but there was no way back; Samsonova simply refused to flinch with the finish line in sight, hitting with conviction as she drew one final forehand long from Bencic.