Two years ago Katie Boulter soared under suffocating pressure to clinch the decisive victory in their playoff tie against Kazakhstan in what was then the Fed Cup, ending Great Britain’s 26-year absence from the top levels of the competition. It came at a great personal cost: the two three-set matches Boulter battled through led to a stress fracture in her back and a seven-month layoff. Her ranking tumbled outside of the top 400.
The 24-year-old again made the difference on Saturday by riding the pressure to seal a 3-1 win against Mexico in the Billie Jean King Cup play-off with a 6-4, 6-1 win over Giuliana Olmos at the LTA National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. Her victory followed Heather Watson’s 6-3, 7-6 (1) loss to Marcela Zacarías. Boulter will hope that this time round her performance will spark a rise up the rankings once more.
Great Britain will now return to the BJK Cup qualifiers in 2022 rather than being relegated to the regional groups, and will compete in February for the chance to reach the finals in Budapest.
“She loves the big stage, she’s a big-match player,” said Great Britain’s captain, Anne Keothavong. “She’s delivered in the past, she delivered again here. She’s a player I have a lot of belief in. I think she can go a long way. I’m just really proud of the performances she put in because expectations were high. There were a few bumps in the first set today, as there were yesterday, but she found a way through it and she finished strong again.”
As in her opening win over Zacarías, a tight tussle early on against Olmos made way for total domination. Boulter’s smooth, destructive first serve flowed and she finished with 85% of points won behind it.
Boulter’s pace and weight of shot has dwarfed all other competitors in Roehampton and, even against far lesser opposition, was a window into the potential she harnesses. The coming weeks, however, will bring a very different challenge.
After starting the year by using her final protected ranking entries at tour level events in Australia and Miami, registering a win over Coco Gauff and taking a set off Naomi Osaka, she will now be competing with players such as Zacarías and Olmos in ITF events.
There are few lower level tournaments in the pandemic, so the ranking cut-offs in most tournament entry lists are high, which means her ranking of 291 will qualify her for even lower tournaments than usual. There will be no electronic line calling system or enthusiastic cheering sections filled with teammates. She will have to consistently demonstrate this form in all situations to rise again.
“I strongly believe I’ve put a lot of work in and I feel like my game is in a really, really good place,” said Boulter. “I think as I showed at the start of the year in Australia, it’s there and it’s ready to come out – it’s just about doing that consistently. I played some good tennis today and yesterday and I’m pretty proud of the performance I put on the line.”
In Saturday’s opening match, the world No 285 Zacarías handed Watson one of her worst ranking losses of the past decade. Watson struggled badly, hitting 40 unforced errors and underlining her ongoing struggles during the pandemic. Watson was playing some of the best tennis of her career just before lockdown, but since returning from the hiatus last August she has a 5-12 record.
Before the tie Watson said she has felt “drained” and “not all there” in recent tournaments and she was particularly affected by her strict 14-day quarantine in Australia. Asked how she can rediscover her vitality of old, she offered an optimistic note: “I think just recharging in whatever way works,” she said. “For me, that would mean home time and time with friends and family because I’ve only been at home two weeks this year.”
“I think recharge, stay patient, stay at it, keep working hard on the court. I’ve played tennis long enough to know that there’s always going to be ups and downs and it’s never going be smooth sailing but you’ve just got to ride out the tough times.”