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Monday, May 17, 2021

In unchartered territory: India to play Latvia in Billie Jean King Cup playoff tie

India will have to punch above their weight on Friday when they take on Latvia – a side that has 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and 2018 US Open semi-finalist Anastasija Sevastova.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: April 16, 2021 2:59:28 pm
Ankita RainaThe match between Ankita and Ostapenko was littered with breaks as the two players fought hard in the match in which the momentum kept shifting. (FILE)

The hollow sound struck as odd when the Indian women’s tennis team took to court. They were at the National Tennis Centre, in Jurmala, gearing up for their Billie Jean King Cup (formerly the Fed Cup) World Group Playoff tie against hosts Latvia.

By no way are the visitors alien to playing on indoor hard courts. But the distinct nature of this particular surface was unusual.

“The court feels like you’re playing on a carpet. There’s a hollow sound when the ball bounces, and very low bounce,” says Rutuja Bhosale. “The balls also get heavy when the fuzz opens. There’s nothing to enjoy about it, you just have to play in whatever courts are there.”

Yet there is an element of excitement for the five players. This is after all, the first time an Indian team has reached this far in the competition.

But now that they have reached this stage, the team ranked 56 will no longer fight for scraps in a zonal group.

Rather, they’ll have to punch above their weight on Friday when they take on the team ranked 13 – a Latvian side that has 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and 2018 US Open semi-finalist Anastasija Sevastova.

Ostapenko, a former World No.5 currently ranked 52, plays the opening singles rubber on Friday against India No.1 Ankita Raina, ranked 174, followed by 47th ranked Sevastova playing No. 621 Karman Kaur Thandi.

The last singles match Sevastova, 31, played in the competition was when she beat the great Serena Williams. Now she relies on YouTube videos to learn a bit about her unknown opponent from New Delhi.

“Karman, I don’t know her much, but I was watching some YouTube videos,” she says at the draw ceremony on Thursday. “I’m looking at how a player plays, when you’ve never seen them play. I’m looking at what are the weapons, what are the weaknesses…”

Thandi was recovering from an injury when the Indian team finished second in the group stage in March 2020. The team then relied on the heroics of Raina and Bhosale in singles. Yet team captain Vishal Uppal opted to name Thandi in the squad in place of Bhosale.

“It was a tough decision for me,” he says. “I felt on Day 1 that Karman could give us a little extra. It was a very tough decision, but I guess I went with my gut.”

Sevastova’s opponent in the return singles match on Saturday is one she is familiar with. The Latvian played Raina at a Futures event in Ahmedabad in 2015. That was a crucial juncture in the Latvian’s career though.

Plagued with injury, she retired from the sport in May 2013, only to return two years later. The Ahmedabad event, where she beat Raina in the final, was a springboard to getting into the upper echelons, reaching as high as World No.11 in 2018.

“It’s been six years (since that match). The only thing is that I know how (Raina) plays a little bit,” Sevastova says. “Those were different conditions. We played in India; it was hot and outdoors, on quick hard courts. Here it’s slower and indoors.”

This is Sevastova’s backyard. After all, she did win a WTA 250 Baltic Open in 2019 on the very same court she will step onto on Friday.

The Indians will need to conjure at least two singles wins from their four matches against the hard-hitting Ostapenko and crafty Sevastova. Should they do that, the tie will go into a deciding fifth rubber where a low-ranked Latvian duo of Diana Marcinkevica and Daniela Vismane will play the Indian team of Raina and Sania Mirza, the former doubles World No.1 and six-time Grand Slam champion.

This tie was originally meant to have taken place last year, but for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indians have had to wait a long time to compete in a tie they’re not expected to win. But by just getting this far, playing in unchartered territory, they’re excited to see how far they can go.

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