Tennis: GB ready for Kazakhstan Fed Cup test
PUBLISHED: 07:00 20 April 2019
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Old wounds came to the surface at the Copper Box on Friday to give an unexpected edge to Great Britain's Fed Cup play-off against Kazakhstan this weekend.
Johanna Konta will open the tie on Saturday against Kazakh number two Zarina Diyas before British number two Katie Boulter takes on Yulia Putintseva.
At 38 in the world, Putintseva is the highest-ranked player on either side and has a reputation as one of the feistiest competitors on tour, something that has made her an unpopular opponent for many players.
Firmly in that camp, it emerged, is GB captain Anne Keothavong, who played Putintseva once at a low-key event in 2010 when the Kazakh was 15 years old and lost 6-0 7-6.
Despite the passage of time, neither has forgotten the occasion, and Keothavong did not mince her words when asked whether her team had focused on that aspect of the challenge in front of them.
“We all know what she's like,” said the 35-year-old former British number one.
“The players are ultimate professionals. You know what's coming but it's important to stay in your own little bubble and not rise to her bait.
“That's what got her to where she is. She's got tremendous character, a huge personality out there on court. But we've got fantastic competitors in the team who are capable of dealing with that.”
Putintseva's behaviour has been the focus of attention many times. In 2017, she apologised after an on-court rant at her coach that included her telling him: “You better wipe that stupid smile from your face.”
At this year's Australian Open, meanwhile, she had a spat with Barbora Strycova over an overly-firm handshake and gave a middle-finger gesture to the crowd after losing to Belinda Bencic.
When told of Keothavong's comments, she gave a smile and said: “I just remember that I beat Keothavong when I was very young.
“She was not very nice with me, she didn't shake my hand, she said that I was too loud, that I was screaming, 'Come on' so loud, she went to talk to the refs - it was a funny experience because I was really young and coming to the WTA Tour level. So it's kind of funny that she said I have a character.”
Pressed on whether the history between the two could affect things this weekend, when Keothavong will be sat on court throughout the matches, Putintseva said: “You think I'm really going to think about it during the match? It's OK. She's the captain, she has to be there.”
There is plenty at stake for both women, with a place in World Group II on the line for the winning team and potentially in an expanded 12-team finals should the competition be overhauled.
Kazakhstan have never played in the World Group while Britain have been battling to get out of the Europe/Africa Zone for the last 26 years.
This is the third year in a row Britain have reached this stage and the fifth time in eight years, but victory has so far proved elusive.
The difference this time is that Keothavong's team were at last drawn at home, and they can take a positive experience of playing in front of an enthusiastic crowd into the tie after Bath successfully hosted the zonal group matches in February.
Britain won every match they played, with Boulter making a superb start to her Fed Cup singles career, but there was no shortage of drama, particularly when Konta collapsed during and after her final victory over Serbia's Aleksandra Krunic.
She will only have to play a maximum of two singles matches this weekend, with her clash against Putintseva the opening rubber on Sunday, while she could well be called on for doubles duty should it go down to a deciding rubber.
Heather Watson and Harriet Dart were provisionally named as Britain's doubles pair but that can be changed.
Konta said: “Nothing's ever guaranteed. All of us prepare the best that we can to perform at the very highest level possible. It's a slightly different format this weekend, it's a two-day event, maximum of three matches. I think we're all very excited as a team to be playing at home in London.”