Tramlines

Britain back on world stage

Tramlines

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Team GB celebrate in Israel

The all-too-familiar questions were being asked after the first day of the Australian Open last month, when every British contender barring Andy Murray was dumped out of the first Grand Slam of the year. In straight sets.

But despite the occasional setback, British women's tennis has not been in such rude health for some considerable time — and that was proved over the course of four impressive days in Eilat, Israel.

The context of the Fed Cup Euro/Africa Zone Group I play-offs might not sound spectacular, but the performance was.

First to be swept aside in Group C were Portugal. Anne Keothavong led off with a straight sets singles win, Elena Baltacha was better still. The young doubles duo of Heather Watson and Laura Robson polished off the doubles.

But the Portuguese, whose two key players Michelle Larcher de Brito and Maria Joao Koehler were both ranked lower than any of the British girls, were the easiest of their assignments.

The Netherlands were the group favourites the next day — but Britain came back from 1-0 down the next day, with Watson and Robson winning the decisive doubles.

The Israelis, hosting the weekend's tennis, could still stop GB winning the group when the two sides met — but Keovathong crushed Julia Glushko to guarantee the top spot, and Baltacha overcame the world number 37 Shahar Peer for good measure.

That meant a promotion play-off against Austria, the Pool A winners — and Keothavong and Baltacha won their singles against Patricia Mayer-Achleitner and Tamira Paszek to build an unassailable lead.

Cue wild celebrations, and another play-off — this time in the World Group in April.

The February 14 draw, where GB are unseeded, could pit them against one of France, Switzerland, Sweden or Argentina. It's the first time that the team has escaped the Euro/Africa Group I since the Fed Cup format was last modified in 2005.

Not a bad start for the new captain Judy Murray. While her singles players Baltacha and Keothavong are in the latter stages of their careers, Robson and Watson are both junior Grand Slam champions and their careers, slowly but steadily, are on the way up.

With exciting ties in the pipeline, and a captain who seems to inspire her players, and the possibility of a home draw which might just capture the public imagination in April, this is a time to celebrate a step forward in British tennis.

"We would love a home tie to experience the type of atmosphere the guys get in Davis Cup," Murray told BBC Sport.

"It would be a great showcase for the British women and a chance to get more girls into our sport.

"It's an exciting time for women's tennis in Britain."

And she's right. It's a fantastic opportunity for women's tennis — one Britain hasn't had for 19 years, since the days of Clare Wood, Julie Salmon, Amanda Grunfeld and Monique Javer played in Nottingham.

It doesn't make Great Britain world beaters, it doesn't make Watson or Robson a Grand Slam champion — but it's a sign that things are heading the right way.

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KARAOKE OF THE WEEK: Tramlines is all for hitting the town and celebrating the achievement of the ladies in the Fed Cup, but it probably won't be suggesting a night of karaoke with Laura Robson any time soon.

It's easy to forget from her perfect start that the 18-year-old Robson was on Fed Cup debut in Israel this week given her three wins from three matches — but there was one reminder.

As her rookie dare for being on the team, she 'had to' (or, Tramlines wonders, chose to) rap Sir Mix-a-Lot's 1992 'classic' Baby Got Back on court.

Embarrassing enough in front of the Eilat crowd. More embarrassing still, of course, if it ever found its way online...

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PHOTOS OF THE WEEK:

The agony and ecstasy of the Fed Cup can be summarised in two pictures from the week's tie between Switzerland and Australia. Amra Sadikovic is left to reflect on losing her match as Switzerland slipped to defeat — but for Jarmila Gajdosova, there was joy unconfined.

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Switzerland suffer

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Australia rejoice

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STAT OF THE WEEK: Congratulations are in order for Juan Monaco, who ended a five-year title drought with a three-set victory against Carlos Berlocq in the final of the VTR Open in Vina del Mar, Chile. He'd reached seven finals in the interim, including two in this tournament — and lost the lot.

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LOOKING AHEAD: Robson and Keothavong are heading out to Pattaya in Thailand for a WTA event, while Maria Sharapova plays her first tournament since a crushing defeat in the Australian Open final over in Paris, with several top names also participating.

On the men's side, it's Davis Cup week. A host of interesting World Group first round matches take place, including Roger Federer's Switzerland against the US, and Germany hosting Argentina. As for Great Britain, they take on Slovakia in Glasgow in their first match since promotion back to Euro/Africa Zone Group I without Andy Murray, who rests up after picking up 'a few minor injuries' in Australia. You can follow the whole thing LIVE on Eurosport this week.

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