THATn all the elementary milestones Emma Raducanu had yet to achieve before winning the US Open so early in her career, few are as incredible as what awaits her as she heads into the fray on her Billie Great Britain in Prague the Czech Republic leads Jean King Cup debut. On Friday, Raducanu will compete in a professional clay-court match for the first time.
While preparing for this moment recently, Raducanu’s superficial strangeness is reflected on her body: “I don’t have toenails,” Raducanu said, laughing after the draw ceremony. “Just my foot, my shoes, they just slipped around a lot.” Anne Keothavong, the GB captain, joked that the rest of the team was “scarred” from the sight of her nails.
Raducanu recalls a trip to the Czech Republic to compete in a junior club league on clay at the age of 11, one of her first tennis trips abroad. Otherwise her clay-court experience amounts to a couple of short summers on the surface and nine ITF junior tournaments, with her last game being four years ago.
How Clay fits into their game will be an interesting sight. Raducanu has so far enjoyed her success on grass and faster hardcourts, which complements her penchant for the ball rising up the baseline. The slow, high-bouncing sand rewards those who are also able to carefully open the court by generating topspin and distance from behind.
“I really think clay might be one of my strongest surfaces because [of] the moving aspect,” she said. “I like to move … because I feel like I have a lot more potential physically. And I enjoy slides. 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 clay brings.”
Earlier this month, Raducanu trained for a few days on clay at the Piatti tennis center in Italy. Rumors of more personnel changes in her team circulated but she explained that she chose to train there to adjust to clay courts while her coach Torben Beltz was on holiday with his family. “Of course he needed that family time. So I figured 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 difficult first full season for Raducanu so far, with a 2-5 win-loss record, various injury issues and many close three-set losses from winning positions. But expectations are extremely low for Sand and she may be enjoying being more under the radar for now.
A young British team is at her side, looking for an unlikely victory. Harriet Dart continues to sit at her new career rank after breaking the top 100 with her run to the fourth round at Indian Wells last month. However, it is also unproven on sand.
Completing the squad are 23-year-old Katie Swan and 20-year-old Sonay Kartal. After struggling with injuries in recent years, Kartal has quickly rocketed up the rankings. Unranked and inactive in early October, she has since amassed a 31-3 record on the ITF circuit, which catapults her to a career rank of 370.
She and Raducanu, who calls Kartal a “ball machine,” grew up together and formed a rivalry that was immortalized by the viral video of them playing endless rallies against each other at the age of nine: “I always ended up playing in the finals against you and we would just take turns who would win this week,” Kartal told Raducanu. “But I mean, I’m still proud of that quick forehand past you.”
What awaits Britain as they attempt to win qualification and reach the Billie Jean King Cup final later this year is the tremendous challenge of taking on the formative women’s side of the last decade, with the Czechs six since 2011 BJK Cup titles Without their top 3 players Barbora Krejcikova, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova and doubles No. 1 Katerina Siniakova, their depth is such that they can still easily assemble a solid strong team, and they remain a sizeable and comfortable favorite.
2019 French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova, ranked 32, will open the tie against darts, and then No. 50 Tereza Martincova meets Raducanu. Waiting in the wings are the immensely talented Karolina Muchova, who is only listed outside the top 20 due to significant injury problems, and Marie Bouzkova. Her fifth selection is also a statement, the talented 16-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova underscoring a dominant era that is far from over.