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GB take on Slovakia in battle for new-look Fed Cup finals place | Tumaini Carayol | Sport

As Johanna Konta clinched a final win at the University of Bath last year to guide Great Britain out of the Fed Cup zonal stages and into the playoffs, she collapsed. She had first fallen to the floor as she left the bathroom during a comfort break in her three-set match against Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic and then, after she reached the finish line, her teammates practically dragged her exhausted body from the court.

It turned out to be the defining image of GB’s 2019 season when they overcame bruising three-set matches, accusations of unfair line calls, mind games and endless drama to return to the World Group stages for the first time in 26 years. It had ended with Katie Boulter playing through injury to clinch victory in the playoff tie against Kazakhstan with a three-set win before being diagnosed with a stress fracture in her back. She did not play another match for seven months.

And yet, after years of failing to rise from the regional groups of the Fed Cup, the year they escaped was the one before everything changed. On Friday and Saturday, GB face Slovakia on clay in Bratislava in what has been transformed into a different competition.

Like the men’s Davis Cup in November, GB are competing for a place alongside 11 other teams at the Fed Cup finals in Budapest from 14-19 April. The event carries a prize fund of $18m, with $12m reserved for the players and $6m for the national associations.

Seven other qualifying ties take place this weekend, with Serena Williams, Sofia Kenin and Naomi Osaka, among others, in action as top players also complete their Fed Cup quotas required for Olympic qualification.

Great Britain will have to be at their best on their worst surface and will have to do so without either Konta or Boulter. The ever-present Heather Watson will head the team alongside Harriet Dart. Naiktha Bains, Katie Swan and Emma Raducanu are also in the squad.

Although Watson and Dart have started the season with encouraging results and hold comparable rankings to the Slovakia singles players, Viktoria Kuzmova and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, the indoor clay surface will heavily suit the home team.

“I don’t feel that a lot hinges on me . I want to do my team proud, I’m playing well and I’m confident in myself,” Watson said on the Fed Cup website. “I’m excited to play and ready to go. The clay is a really nice court. Schmiedlova is tough, such a consistent retriever of the ball. Kuzmova is a great player, very young, an aggressor who hits a big ball – that will be tough, too.”

Ideally GB would be able to call on last year’s French Open semi-finalist but Konta never planned to compete in this Fed Cup round. Her focus is on maintaining her body in a busy Olympic year and her scheduling decisions are complicated by a knee problem that troubled her throughout 2019 and into preparation for this season.

The increased focus on team sports in recent years belies the fact that tennis remains an individual sport that inherently requires players to make selfish decisions for the benefit of their careers. Konta owes GB nothing and has led the team more than most other top players.

She will leave it to other capable players to see if they can find the inspiration to steer Great Britain forward.

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