Great Britain begin their latest bid to return to the elite level of Fed Cup in Japan today.
Britain have spent 25 years trapped in the labyrinth of the Europe/Africa Zone but have been knocking hard on the door recently and this is the fourth time in seven years they have reached the World Group II play-offs.
The draw has not been kind, handing them trips to Sweden, Argentina and, last year, Romania, where Ilie Nastase’s deplorable behaviour overshadowed a 3-2 defeat on clay in Constanta.
Anne Keothavong’s side have had to travel further than ever this time but at least have avoided clay, with the Japanese choosing an indoor hard court for the clash at the Bourbon Beans Dome in Miki, which doubles as an earthquake shelter.
Keothavong said: “All the girls have prepared the best they can and I don’t think we have left any stone unturned. Every practice has got better. It’s a fast indoor court and it does suit our team, too.”
Keothavong has been able to name her strongest team, with two-time grand slam semi-finalist Johanna Konta leading the side and Heather Watson the second singles player.
Anna Smith and debutante Gabi Taylor are scheduled to play doubles tomorrow, but Keothavong would almost certainly draft in Konta and/or Watson should the tie go to a deciding rubber.
Konta, who was reduced to tears by Nastase’s abuse last year, insisted she had no second thoughts about playing, saying: “It was definitely a bizarre feeling to get on the plane and come this far east at this time of the year but I really enjoy playing Fed Cup. We have terrific team spirit and it was an easy decision to make.”
It should be a close tie, although there is no doubt Japan have the form player in Naomi Osaka, who has surged to 22nd in the rankings after a brilliant start to 2018, capped by winning her biggest title in Indian Wells last month.
The 20-year-old is one of the most exciting and hard-hitting players on tour but also relatively inexperienced and this will be a different test as she carries the hopes of her nation.
The first rubber of the tie pits Osaka against Watson, who is on a seven-match losing streak but has a fine record in the Fed Cup, before Konta faces 100th-ranked Kurumi Nara.
Konta will hope her good record plays in her favour for what could be the key rubber of the tie tomorrow, with the British No 1 having won both her previous meetings against Osaka last year.
Watson said: “I’m expecting to go up against a very in-form Naomi Osaka. It will be a tough match because she hits the ball hard and these courts suit her game really well. I feel like I’m playing really well, though, and I do enjoy faster surfaces too.”
With changes to the Fed Cup potentially in the offing, including an expansion of the World Group to 16 teams, it would be a timely moment for Britain to finally overcome their trickiest hurdle.
On the ATP tour, Rafael Nadal remains on track for his 11th Monte-Carlo Masters title after cruising into the semi-finals with a crushing straight-sets victory over Dominic Thiem.
The world No 1 dropped only two games en route to a 6-0, 6-2 success which was wrapped up in just over an hour.
Austrian Thiem had knocked out 12-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic in the third round on Thursday but the world No 7 had no answer to Nadal, dropping the opening nine games and making a total of 25 unforced errors.
Spaniard Nadal, who is aiming for a third successive tournament win in Monaco, will face Grigor Dimitrov in the last four after the Bulgarian battled past David Goffin with a stunning second-set comeback.
After edging the opening set, fourth-seed Dimitrov quickly found himself 5-1 down to his doubles partner in the second.
The 26-year-old then won five games in a row, saving three set points in the process, before taking the tie-break to seal a 6-4, 7-6 (7/5) victory.
Second seed Marin Cilic crashed out of the competition following a three-set defeat to Kei Nishikori.
Nishikori recovered from failing to take three match points in the second set to progress to his first Masters semi-final in 20 months with a 6-4, 6-7 (1/7), 6-3 victory.
The Japanese’s reward for his hard-fought win is a last-four encounter with German Alexander Zverev.
World No 4 Zverev came from a set down to defeat Frenchman Richard Gasquet 4-6 6-2 7-5 in a marathon match lasting two hours and 40 minutes.