Fed Cup: GB women can end 24-year World Group absence by beating Romania

By Russell FullerBBC tennis correspondent
Great Britain Fed Cup team's Jocelyn Rae, Johanna Konta, Anne Keothavong, Hather Watson, Katie Swan and Laura Robson pose for photos
A victory over Romania would send the Brits into World Group II - the second tier of 16 elite Fed Cup countries
Fed Cup BBC coverage
Radio coverage: Saturday, 22 April, 10:00-12:30, Simona Halep v Heather Watson, BBC Radio 5 live sports extra
Red Button coverage: Saturday, 22 April, 10:00-15:00, Romania v Great Britain, Connected TV and online (09:00-18:00 on Sunday)
Website: Live streaming and text commentary service will be available on both Saturday and Sunday on the BBC Sport website

It's 24 years since Great Britain's women last contested a Fed Cup World Group tie, although that is very recent history to the residents of the Black Sea resort they find themselves in this weekend.

Constanta is the oldest continually inhabited city in Romania. The sun will soon be beating down on the thousands of holidaymakers who flock here every summer, although these early British tourists have been treated to rain, strong winds, single digit temperatures - and even the occasional flurry of snow.

The outdoor clay court looked very sorry for itself on Thursday and Friday, as the players were forced under cover.

For the third time in six years, Britain are a play-off win away from the World Group. They were well beaten in Sweden in 2012, and then again in Argentina in 2013, and have once again travelled as underdogs.

GB's Jocelyn Rae and Heather Watson take part in a training session
Great Britain are looking to return to the elite level of the competition for the first time since 1993

But they have at least earned themselves the opportunity after successfully negotiating a week of Euro Africa Zone qualifying matches in the Estonian capital Tallinn in February. It is a week which does little for the exposure of the Fed Cup and ends most countries' involvement for the year before the daffodils have come into bloom.

"I think it's damaged the competition if I'm perfectly honest," GB's captain Anne Keothavong said told BBC Sport in Constanta.

"There's no momentum if you look at where we have been in recent years. We've been in a group where there have been 15 other nations and only two of those nations go through for a chance to even play for a World Group position.

"It's been notoriously tough and one we have struggled with, and even this year - with a top-10 player - we only just managed to do that in a deciding doubles match."

Johanna Konta, partnered by Heather Watson, lost the first set and twice had to recover from a break of serve down in the decider to win that match with Croatia and set up this play-off tie.

Order of play
Saturday, 22 AprilSunday, 23 April
10:00 BST: Simona Halep (Rom) v Heather Watson (GB)09:00 BST: Simona Halep (Rom) v Johanna Konta (GB)
Followed by Sorana Cirstea (Rom) v Johanna Konta (GB)Followed by Irina-Camelia Begu (Rom) v Heather Watson (GB)
And Sorana Cirstea/Monica Niculescu (Rom) v Jocelyn Rae/Laura Robson (GB)

Romania boast a strong line-up. Simona Halep, who will open the tie against Watson at 10:00 BST on Saturday, can be horribly inconsistent but she is the world number five, the French Open runner-up of 2014, and a major star in her home city of Constanta.

Every other member of their team is a top-100 singles player, while Britain - after Watson's recent fall in the rankings - has just the one.

But that 'one' is some player.

Konta is the world number seven and third in the annual points race after her victory in the Miami Open earlier this month. Halep finds herself at 44th in the same list and has lost both her matches to Konta, although this will be a first meeting on clay, which is very much the Romanian's favourite surface.

How Johanna Konta is aiming to become world number one

Having a player of that ability - who could well play two singles as well as the doubles this weekend - opens up exciting possibilities for the team. The 11 points Andy Murray contributed as Britain won the Davis Cup in 2015 may never be matched by another British player, but Keothavong recognises the contribution made by her number one.

"She brings a lot to the team," the captain agrees.

"Just the way she is, the way she operates and the level she demands from everyone is great, and hopefully it filters down to the other players and inspires the others to really step up."

And Fed Cup can be a two way process. Konta described the week in Estonia as "one of the most adrenalin driven weeks I've experienced in a while."

"I felt I took away a lot of really positive emotion, and a lot of new experiences," she continued.

"The adrenalin and the nerves you get during Fed Cup are unlike others you experience during the season, and I really really enjoyed that."

But will Konta - who plays world number 62 Sorana Cirstea in Saturday's singles after Romania made a late change from Irina-Camelia Begu - get to feel that on a regular basis, and will the competition become as relevant to British audiences as the Davis Cup has been in recent years?

BBC Weather Service
The weather in Constanta is set to improve this weekend after a couple of days of rain, strong winds and low temperatures

If Britain lose this weekend, they will return to the 16-team Euro Africa Zone shoot-out in February 2018, but if they win they could start next year as one of the 16 teams which will contest the trophy.

As things stand, the winners will be promoted to World Group 2, but the International Tennis Federation wants to merge the two existing World Groups to form an elite 16 team top tier to mirror the Davis Cup.

The semi-finals and final would be played in one city, in one week, at the end of the season - but all of this is subject to the approval of the ITF's member nations at August's AGM in Ho Chi Minh City.

One other incentive this weekend is the possibility of a home tie next February. Since Monique Javer, Clare Wood and Amanda Grunfeld dispatched Turkey in Nottingham in May 1993, Britain have played every single Fed Cup tie on the road.

Argentina, Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Malta, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Turkey have many charms. But next year, there really would be no place like home.

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