This weekend, Great Britain’s Fed Cup team will play one of its most crucial ties in years when it takes on Romania in the World Group II play-off tie in Constanta.
The importance of this match cannot be overstated. If GB can snatch a win, they will wave goodbye to the Europe/Africa Zone – the bottom of the barrel in Fed Cup terms – which the team has inhabited since 1993.
The quartet of Johanna Konta, Heather Watson, Jocelyn Rae and Laura Robson is the strongest that GB have.
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In Konta, they have the world No.7 and one of the circuit’s most in-form players of 2017, while Watson has been ranked as high as 38 but currently sits at number 113 having had a somewhat shaky start to the year.
However, the 24-year-old has an impressive Fed Cup record having won 25 rubbers and lost only seven.
Robson continues her comeback from a long-term injury lay-off but looks to be improving month by month, while the lone Scot, Rae, is the team’s doubles specialist who can be called upon to shore up the team after the opening two singles rubbers.
GB reached this World Group II play-off match by defeating Croatia in impressive fashion in February and Rae is in no doubt about quite how significant an achievement it would be if she and her compatriots could end the weekend victorious.
“This is a really massive tie for us,” the 26-year-old told Herald Sport from GB’s team base in Constanta.
“Getting out of that group in February was really tricky so we did very well to get through that to get this opportunity.”
GB are up against it, though. They are heavy underdogs against Romania and are going right into the lion’s den in the black sea city of Constanta.
The hosts have pulled out all of the stops and are fielding their strongest team, which includes world No.5 Simona Halep.
The tie will be played on clay which strongly favours the home team – Halep is a former French Open finalist – and the sell-out crowd will be in no doubt about which team they are supporting. “The stadium is really good and it’s big,” said Rae.
“They’ve had to build a couple more levels to increase the capacity so it’s looking great. This is Simona Halep’s home city so I reckon that’s why the tickets are so in demand. There’s unlikely to be too many people in the crowd supporting us but that’s ok, it’ll be a really good atmosphere to play in.”
Romania may be the favourites in terms of ranking but Rae and GB are confident that they can pull off an upset.
As recently as last month Konta defeated Halep when they met in the quarter-finals of Miami, a tournament the Brit went on to win, while their only other meeting was in 2015 which Konta also won.
Romania’s team is completed by world No.33 Irina-Camelia Begu, world No.47 Monica Niculescu and world No.62, Sorana Cirstae.
So Rae is under no illusions as to the size of the task ahead but is fully focused on securing a historic win that would take GB into World Group II.
“To be up against Romania on clay is a very difficult draw and they have such a strong team out so of course it’s going to be very tough,” said Rae, who won Commonwealth gold for Scotland in 2010 alongside Colin Fleming. “But we’ve got a really strong team as well so it’s just going to come down to who plays better over the two days. It’s a real compliment to us that they’re fielding such a strong team and to have selected Halep shows that they really respect us.
"They’ll be tough to beat but we have JoKO who’s doing so well at the moment so they’ll have a lot to contend with too and, if we’re playing well, I think we can compete with pretty much any team in the world. And Halep will be aware that she lost recently to JoKO so she might be feeling nervous.
"We definitely feel confident – we fully believe that we can win so it’s just about making sure we’re in a good frame of mind for the tie starting.”
This weekend is captain Anne Keothavong’s second tie in the hot-seat with the former world number 48 having taken over the captaincy from Judy Murray at the end of last year.
Murray took the team to the World Group II play-offs on two occasions but could never muster a win, losing in 2012 to Sweden and 2013 to Argentina. Murray’s five-year stint in charge brought a significant amount to the team, including some much-needed publicity, but Rae believes that Keothavong has filled the Scot’s shoes admirably. “Anne is definitely different from Judy,” Rae said. “We miss Judy, though. She was a great captain but Anne is also a very good captain. What’s good about Anne is that she has played on the team alongside all of us so we’ve had her as a team-mate so knows us all well and we know her well too so it’s a really good fit.”