Mixed feelings over Billie Jean King Cup, 'work in progress'

·3-min read
Tiring: France's Alize Cornet (AFP/Michal Cizek)

The Billie Jean King Cup, whose maiden edition ended in Prague on Saturday, has reaped praise for actually taking place amid the Covid pandemic but also left a few questions.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) revamped the original Fed Cup into a tournament, world-cup-like format, following a similar decision on the Davis Cup.

It had to wait for two years because of the Covid pandemic to see the maiden edition kick off.

But while ITF head David Haggerty hailed the event as an "outstanding week of tennis", many players and fans were left with mixed feelings.

Only five top 20 players took part in the event scheduled for the week just before the WTA Finals in Mexico -- even though the ITF raised the prize money to the Davis Cup level.

Ties often ended late at night and some teams bemoaned a lack of time for recovery in the packed schedule.

"I have found this format rather demanding, tiring, the days are long. Hyper-demanding," said France's Alize Cornet.

Czech veteran Lucie Hradecka, who finished her doubles rubber after midnight on the first day of the tournament, said she was "drained" after getting to the hotel at 2am.

"I took the entire day to recover. And thinking I would have to play the next day, that would not be ideal," she said.

Sloane Stephens put on a more conciliatory tone, describing the tournament as a "work in progress".

"There can be some things that we can change and adjust to better suit the players, not be here till 1am or 2am or whatever, but that's just a learning curve for everyone," she said.

- 'Raise your voices' -

Prague earned praise for organising the event on a very tight schedule after it took over from Budapest in the summer with the hope that local fans will provide the atmosphere the event deserves.

But fans were scarce for most of the tournament played from Monday to Saturday, partly because of the Covid restrictions in place.

Some 8,700 fans watched the Czechs lose to Switzerland in their last group game on Thursday in the O2 Arena, whose capacity has been reduced to 12,000 over Covid.

A day later, only 3,500 turned up for the semi-finals.

"I thought we had amazing crowds especially when the Czechs played," said Billie Jean King.

"I was amazed we had any people, if you look at most tournaments."

But many opening ties played on workdays had just a handful of spectators, with the clatter of trolleys and cutlery from the skybox kitchen clearly audible most of the time.

"I turned to the bench and said, listen, you've got to raise your voices," said Australia captain Alicia Molik, describing the silence in the arena as Australia faced Switzerland in the semi-finals.

"We miss our home crowd."

- 'Different and fun' -

Czech fan Milan Janda, who bought a ticket to watch the Czechs in the semi-final and ended up watching the Swiss play Australia, said he liked the old Fed Cup better.

"It was at the weekend so more reasonable for us, and the attendance was better," he told AFP, munching on crisps.

"But seeing all those top players is also something," he said, adding he would leave before the end of the tie though as he had a train to catch.

The assessment of the event sometimes depended on how the players or teams were doing.

"I think that if we had made the final we would have loved it but...," Ajla Tomljanovic said after her Team Australia was ousted by Switzerland.

Swiss fan Bert Weidmann hailed the "great" event after the same tie.

"It's great, we will see different countries in the same place, so it's great. Prague is a nice city, I did sightseeing and I can see the matches and the city," he told AFP.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova also praised the "exciting format" after Russia had reached the final.

"It's better that you have everything in one place during one week. I find it different and fun and I like the atmosphere," she said.

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