Of all of the elementary milestones that Emma Raducanu had not yet notched up before she won the US Open so early into her career, few are as unbelievable as what awaits her as she leads Great Britain into battle against the Czech Republic in Prague on her Billie Jean King Cup debut. On Friday, Raducanu will compete in a professional clay court match for the first time.
As she has prepared for this moment recently, Raducanu’s unfamiliarity on the surface is reflected on her body: “I have no toenails,” said Raducanu, laughing, after the draw ceremony. “Just my foot, my shoes, they’ve just been sliding around a lot.” Anne Keothavong, the GB captain, joked that the rest of the team is “scarred” by the sight of her nails.
Raducanu remembers travelling to the Czech Republic to compete in a junior club league on clay aged 11, one of her first tennis trips abroad. Otherwise, her clay court experience amounts to a few brief summers on the surface and nine ITF junior tournaments, her last match coming being four years ago.
How clay matches up with her game will be an interesting sight. Raducanu has so far enjoyed her success on grass and faster hard courts that complement her preference for taking the ball on the rise inside the baseline. The slow, high-bouncing clay rewards those who are also capable of carefully opening the court by generating topspin and width from behind it.
“I genuinely believe that clay could be one of my strongest surfaces because [of] the moving aspect,” she said. “I do like moving … because I feel like I have a lot more potential physically. And I do enjoy sliding. After spending more time on this surface I’m sure I’ll time it better and learn more about the surface, but also just the time that clay brings.”
At the beginning of the month, Raducanu spent a number of days training on clay at the Piatti tennis centre in Italy. Rumours circulated about further personnel changes in her team, but she explained that she had opted to train there in order to adapt to clay courts while her coach, Torben Beltz, took a holiday with his family. “Of course he needed that family time. So I thought I might as well take the opportunity to go to Italy and spend some more time on the dirt,” she said.
This has been a tough first full season so far for Raducanu, with a 2-5 win-loss record, various injury niggles and many tight three-set losses from winning positions. But expectations are extremely low on clay and she may well enjoy being more under the radar for now.
A young Great Britain team stands alongside her as they look for an unlikely victory. Harriet Dart continues to sit around her new career high ranking after breaking the top 100 with her recent run to the Indian Wells fourth round last month. However, she is also unproven on clay.
The squad is completed by 23-year-old Katie Swan and 20-year-old Sonay Kartal. After struggling with injuries in recent years, Kartal has flitted up the rankings swiftly. She was unranked and inactive at the beginning of October, yet has since compiled a 31-3 record on the ITF circuit, catapulting her to a career high ranking of 370th.
She and Raducanu, who calls Kartal a “ball machine”, grew up together, forming a rivalry immortalized by the viral video of them playing an endless rally against each other aged nine: “I’d always end up playing you in the final and we would just alternate between who would win that week,” said Kartal, addressing Raducanu. “But, I mean, I’m still proud of that on-the-run forehand past you.”
What awaits Great Britain as they attempt to win the qualifier and reach the Billie Jean King Cup finals later this year is the enormous challenge of facing the defining women’s team over the past decade, with the Czechs having won six BJK Cup titles since 2011. Despite being without their top three players, Barbora Krejcikova, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova, plus Katerina Siniakova, the doubles No 1, their depth is so great that they can still easily piece together a solid, deep team, and they remain considerable comfortable favourites.
The 2019 French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova, ranked 32nd, will open up the tie against Dart and then No 50 Tereza Martincova will face Raducanu. Waiting in the wings is the immensely talented Karolina Muchova, who is only ranked outside of the top 20 because of significant injury issues, and Marie Bouzkova. Even their fifth selection is a statement, the talented 16-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova underlining a dominant era that is far from over.