Sanders inspires as Australia storm into Billie Jean King Cup semi-finals
Storm Sanders says that inspiring Australia to seal a shock berth in the semi-finals of the Billie Jean King Cup – the World Cup of women’s tennis – is like a “dream come true”.
After surprise packet Sanders had earned her second singles triumph of the week in Prague, outclassing Yuliya Hatouka 6-3, 6-3 in Thursday’s opener, Ajla Tomljanovic earned a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 comeback win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich to give Australia an unassailable lead over depleted Belarus in the crucial group tie.
And though Sasnovich and Lidziya Marozava then won a consolation doubles against Ellen Perez and Olivia Gadecki 6-4, 6-4, the Australians were left celebrating an overall 2-1 victory and the prospect of a last-four date with Switzerland, who overcame the Czech Republic.
After missing the opening victory against Belgium with an unspecified illness, Tomljanovic was left elated to prove herself resilient enough to send Australia through to the last four of the prestigious event formerly known as Fed Cup.
The world No 43 was ranked 45 places higher than Sasnovich but with her thigh heavily strapped and looking as if she could be outgunned, Australia’s No 2 had to dig really deep after her first set capitulation.
“There’s no greater feeling,” the 28-year-old smiled. “The fact that I got a point makes me unbelievably happy. I just feel like I came here to help the team and ended up doing that, so that makes me happy.”
While Australia were also understrength in the absence of world No 1 Ash Barty, Alicia Molik’s team are now eyeing a golden opportunity to go one better than their runner-up finish when the event was last held in 2019.
“It’s the belief of the team I’m really impressed with,” said Molik. “Special tennis always comes out during the team events when we represent our country so we can’t wait for tomorrow. What a great opportunity.”
Belarus may have been without world No 2 Aryna Sabalenka and two-time grand slam champion Victoria Azarenka but Australia still had to win to ensure progress. And Sanders once again proved their inspiration.
Enjoying her finest season yet on tour, the 27-year-old left-hander had set the ball rolling on Tuesday by defying her ranking of No 131 to score a huge three-set upset victory over world No 18 Elise Mertens 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-0 to inspire a surprise win over Belgium.
She had far too many guns for Hatouka, the world No 192 making her Cup debut, needing little more than an hour to put Australia in control.
“I was injured in 2018 with a shoulder injury and, honestly, I never thought I’d be playing singles for Australia in these finals,” Sanders explained afterwards. “To have two wins as well – honestly it’s a dream come true and I’m just really, really proud to be able to step out on court.”
Tomljanovic then recovered from her nervy, rusty start to clinch Australia’s passage with the 30th win of a breakout season which saw her make the Wimbledon quarter-finals.
“I don’t think it really sinks in that we’re in the semis because it’s a different format this year,” said Tomljanovic, who insisted that there was no problem with her fitness and that the thigh strapping had been precautionary.
“I think we’re all happy to be in the semis but no-one feels overly happy because we don’t think the job is done yet.”