RTF rule for Billie Jean King Cup triumph

 - Alex Sharp

The star-studded Russian Tennis Federation squad became world champions for a fifth time at the inaugural Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Prague.

Russia BJK Cup team 2021©Paul Zimmer / FFT

Three years ago the Russian Tennis Federation (RTF) were relegated from the Fed Cup World Cup, the top tier of women’s team tennis.

Fast forward to November 2021 and Igor Andreev’s side are world champions for the fifth time, their first since 2008, capping a captivating week in Prague, Czech Republic.

Within the time of the global pandemic, the Fed Cup has been revitalised and renamed the Billie Jean King Cup, in honour of the ultimate trailblazer.

Whether in the stands or glued to screens worldwide, fans were treated to an astonishing blend of matches and heroics over the six days of competition.

The likes of Clara Burel (France), Storm Sanders (Australia), Danielle Collins (USA) and Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic (Switzerland) demonstrated the depth in women’s tennis with standout showings.

Samsonova sparkles in Prague comebacks

However, the week will be remembered for the true emergence of Liudmila Samsonova

“Today is one of the most exciting and important days of my entire life!” Declared the Russian having overturned a set deficit facing Sloane Stephens in the semi-finals. But it got even better.

In fact, the BJK Cup debutant thrived in the team setting, going 3-0 in the decisive doubles ties (should teams be locked 1-1 after singles) and then 2-0 in singles.

Over to the final and Samsonova illustrated her credentials for the top with another compelling comeback, outmanoeuvring Swiss No.1 Bencic 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to spark jubilant team celebrations and some top-drawer dance moves.  

“It’s a dream coming true, I have too many emotions right now, it’s unbelievable what is happening now,” said world No.39 Samsonova, hoping Prague is a platform for individual success. 

“I’m so, so happy for all the team, for the team that we are; I think that was our strength. 

“Of course, it was an incredible experience, I tried to learn from every moment of this week and I hope it’s going to be very important for my future.”

Mission complete for Russian renaissance

When former world No.18 Andreev took over as the team captain in 2018, they lost at home to Latvia to fall from the BJK Cup World Group. 

Then a February 2019 victory in Poland ignited nine successive wins, concluding with the thrilling 2-0 triumph over Switzerland on Saturday night. 

Andreev had a wealth of talent to call upon last week, his squad was a quintet of Top 40 players. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Daria Kasatkina featured in the 2019 Poland win and they both contributed crucial points in Prague.

Pavlyuchenkova, “the boss” according to Samsonova, managed to erase 2015 memories from the exact same stadium, when losing to the Czech Republic in the final.

12 years after making her RTF debut, Pavlyuchenkova cherished adding world champion to her superb career, despite being denied a playing part in Saturday’s trophy showdown with a left knee injury.

“I guess it’s better late than never,” said the world No.12, also an ardent supporter from the RTF team bench.

“Six years ago, I was playing here the final where Maria Sharapova won all her singles and we just needed one point that I couldn’t give them, so that was probably the worst day of my life. But I overcame this and that also made me stronger I guess.

“But the main point I would like to say, it’s about the team, it’s not about yourself and I think I’ve learned that and I wanted to bring as much as possible encouragement and positive energy to all the girls.”

Incredible year for “the boss” Pavlyuchenkova

The 30-year-old will never forget the 2021 campaign. 

“It’s an incredible year, finishing on this note,” stated the Roland-Garros runner-up. “Olympic medal (mixed doubles gold), first Grand Slam final, and I couldn’t imagine I would finish with this medal here.”

The world No.12 can clearly recall the times when RTF had drifted down to the Group Zone matches.

“I came there after the Australian Open and the only thing, I swear, I had in mind, ‘I want so badly to win the World Cup with the girls with the team’, but I thought it’s so far ahead,” reflected Pavlyuchenkova, looking back on the pivotal 2019 tie in Zielona Gora, Poland. 

“So, we started there and it’s an incredible journey and I’m so grateful for my year.”

1998 runners-up Switzerland excelled at the O2 Arena last week, spearheaded by some stunning performances from Bencic.

Having fallen just short of lifting the trophy, Swiss captain Heinz Guenthardt assured their fans they’re even more determined to rebound from this defeat. 

“Are we going to come back? You bet we’re going to come back. And they are a young team, they’re only getting better,” he said. 

“Real success is overcoming failure, but this is not a failure, making the finals is not a failure. So, will we back? Absolutely. Will we be tough to beat? Count on it.”