Bratislava and Bust… GB vs Slovakia, February 2020

By Luke Fisher.

I’ve been going to Fed Cup ties since 2015, and every year of that has been spent watching us in the Euro-Africa Zone 1 round-robin tournaments with the occasional playoff loss thereafter. That was until those magical weeks last year in Bath and then the Copper Box where we finally managed to get up into the World Group!

Changes to the format over the summer meant we went into the new format, and when Slovakia away was drawn it was one of those that could go either way. Clay has never been our friend, however, and when Jo Konta revealed she wouldn’t play I’ll be honest that I went to Bratislava thinking we may be counting sets rather than rubbers come the end of the tie.

Our BATS trip started on Thursday night with the traditional meet-up. As Bratislava is only a few hours down the road from me in Prague, and I’ve been there more than enough times, I was able to organise a decent Slovak pub to host it in. If you’ve never been on a BATS trip, or are thinking about joining, these are great – you can just relax with a drink, some food, and talk to other people who just enjoy going to different places to watch tennis. We got our tickets from Jan as well, and it got me thinking how simple that all was – perhaps we underestimate the work that goes on behind the scenes sometimes to sort all of this out, but it’s much appreciated!

Friday tennis soon came around – I know some others did some good ‘touristing’ around the city beforehand as well! It’s fair to say that Hev’s rubber with Anna-Karolina Schmiedlova was a pretty frustrating watch. The Slovak played a very accurate game and in fairness rarely missed, but Hev was unable to convert enough winners and unforced errors, which ultimately cost her in a 6-2 6-3 defeat. A disappointing start.

That was in complete contrast to what we saw from Harriet Dart who stunned the Slovak #1 by stealing the opening set on a tie-break. Losing the second 6-3 meant that the final set had a bit of an ominous feeling about it, but her ‘never say die’ attitude was nothing short of inspiring. After clawing her way back to five all, she however lost serve but still saved countless match points before going down 7-5 in the third.

Arriving on Day 2 down two rubbers it seemed rather bleak, and in my own mind I saw very little way we could end up winning the tie overall. However, sport isn’t played on paper and when Viktória Kužmová was scratched late for Rebecca Šramková we knew there was a good chance for Hev to get us back in the tie. She responded from the previous day’s disappointment emphatically in a 6-0 7-5 win in a match that rarely looked in doubt. For all the criticism that you could level at her game, you simply cannot fault Hev’s commitment to Fed Cup, Team GB, and tennis in general. It was nice to see her finally win a game at World Group level after losing all of her rubbers against Romania and Japan.

Harriet Dart again played well above her ranking facing star of the tie Schmiedlova. One break cost her the opening set, and despite hanging in the second as long as she could, it would eventually go 6-3 to Schmiedlova. Dart again refused to be beaten and saved a handful of match points before going long and giving Slovakia the overall tie win.

I’ll admit it was a little bit disappointing to lose the tie when we’d been in almost every rubber, and it’s never fun losing away from home. That said, what could have been a whitewash was most definitely not, and for me the performances from Harriet were worth the ticket and train price alone. In theory she is our number four, if you assume a fit Konta and Boulter are available. That would be a very handy team in the future.

So, we won’t be in the first Fed Cup Finals in Budapest. I suspect this may be a blessing in disguise as teams 11 and 12 end up relegated direct to the zonals, and given the strength of opposition we would be one of the favourites for that. Instead, an adventure awaits – Mexico away! Likely to be on clay, but a very winnable tie. Joining BATS led me to Japan which I’d probably not have considered doing alone, and so I’m looking forward to hopefully making this trip with others as well!

It was also great to see such a large travelling support for the team. Fed Cup has often been the shadow of the Davis Cup, but 60 BATS and others who went independently was amazing to be part of at an away tie!

Budapest to Belgrade, and Tallinn to Tokyo

Back in 2015 I was living in Budapest, and noticed that Great Britain were taking part in the Fed Cup that week in the city. I’d not been to watch any live tennis since going to Wimbledon in 2006 (!) but regularly watched major tournaments and Davis Cup on TV, so thought I’d pop along. I didn’t bother with the first day against Lichtenstein because it didn’t seem worth it, but the next morning we had Turkey so I got on a tram to SYMA.

I didn’t expect two things that day – one, that there would be a decent core of British support; and two, that we’d lose the tie! I left shortly after the second rubber in minor disgust, but came back the next day for what turned out to be an epic against Ukraine. I won’t go into details of the games because you can read that elsewhere, but some overly-fussy security not letting me sit behind one end where I wanted to watch meant I ‘accidentally’ ended up in with the BATS over on one side. Being there on my own, and living in a foreign country, I quite enjoyed being able to sit with some people from my own country and could talk to! I will always remember Sue Richardson obviously seeing the terror in my eyes at all of these middle-aged (mainly female) tennis fans and inviting me to sit with them; but everyone was very welcoming and within about 15 minutes Mary offered to ‘sign me up’ – “Is that what you kids call it these days?” I replied, thankfully everyone laughed and I knew I was in good company!

About four months later I was lucky enough to go to our home Davis Cup tie at Queens via BATS, which was something I’d not really considered doing before. It was a whole new world to me that people were going to home and away ties, although I’d often watched on television and thought “WHO are these people going to Luxembourg for tennis?!” With Fed Cup going to Eliat the year after and Davis Cup being in Glasgow, I didn’t attend much for about a year. Then we draw Serbia away. Aside from it being pretty close from Budapest, it was actually almost on ‘home ground’ for me as I studied Serbian at university. I was really happy to be able to write a whole guide of tips and things for people about Belgrade, and I didn’t expect so many people to actually come up and thank for me for how useful it was when we were there!

Fed Cup in Tallinn followed by the infamous playoff in Constanta. This was the first time I stayed in a hotel with other BATS (previously using Air BnB) and I really enjoyed the whole thing. Then this year in Tallinn, and suddenly we draw Japan away. I think this is the thing I probably have BATS to thank for the most. I’d always wanted to go to Asia and this was a perfect excuse, but being able to do it with a handful of other people was just amazing and pushed me over the line to book it. We all booked flights based on a very loose itinerary, worked out Air BnBs/Hotels, and had an unbelievable 10 days in a truly fascinating country. 8,000 miles is a very long way from home when you lose as all of us who went can confirm, but I would not have traded that trip for anything.

So if I think back to when I casually decided to “pop along” to see what it was all about in Budapest, to then travelling all the way to Japan to see a Fed Cup tie, I am incredibly grateful to BATS for basically being an organisation that puts like-minded people in touch with each other.

I would highly recommend anyone to join that’s looking to go to things and would enjoy meeting up with other tennis fans all over the world, or organising trips to events. Sure you get some people who are very in to certain players, or others who prefer this tournament over that, but in general everyone just enjoys watching tennis.

And don’t be put off by tennis fan clubs being generally populated by middle-aged/retired people either!