• Prague


The Billie Jean King Cup, whose maiden edition ended in Prague on Saturday, has drawn praise for actually taking place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but raised a few questions.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) revamped the original Fed Cup into a World Cup-like format, following a similar decision on the Davis Cup.

It was delayed for two years due to the pandemic.

While ITF head David Haggerty hailed the event as an “outstanding week of tennis,” many players and fans were left with mixed feelings.

Only five Top 20 players took part in the event, which was scheduled for the week before the WTA Finals in Mexico — even though the ITF raised the prize money to the Davis Cup level.

Matches often ended late at night and some teams bemoaned a lack of recovery time in the packed schedule.

“I have found this format rather demanding, tiring, the days are long. France’s Alize Cornet said. “Hyper-demanding.”

Czech veteran Lucie Hradecka, who finished her doubles rubber after midnight on the first day of the tournament, said she was “drained” after getting to the hotel at 2 a.m.

“I took the entire day to recover,” she said. “And thinking I would have to play the next day, that would not be ideal.”

Sloane Stephens struck a more conciliatory tone, describing the tournament as a “work in progress.”

“There can be some things that we can change and adjust to better suit the players, not be here till 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. or whatever, but that’s just a learning curve for everyone,” she said.

Prague earned praise for organizing the event on a very tight schedule after it took over from Budapest in the summer with the hope that local fans would provide the atmosphere.

But fans were scarce for most of the tournament, which was played from Monday to Saturday, partly because of the COVID-19 restrictions that were in place.

Around 8,700 fans watched the Czechs lose to Switzerland in their last group game on Thursday in the O2 Arena, where the capacity has been reduced to 12,000 due to COVID.

A day later, only 3,500 turned up for the semifinals.

“I thought we had amazing crowds, especially when the Czechs played,” Billie Jean King said.

“I was amazed we had any people, if you look at most tournaments.”

But many opening ties played on weekdays had just a handful of spectators, with the clatter of trolleys and cutlery from the skybox kitchen clearly audible.

“I turned to the bench and said, listen, you’ve got to raise your voices,” said Australia captain Alicia Molik, describing the silence in the arena as Australia faced Switzerland in the semifinals.

“We miss our home crowd.”

Czech fan Milan Janda, who bought a ticket to watch the Czechs in the semifinals and ended up watching the Swiss play Australia, said he liked the old Fed Cup better.

“It was at the weekend so more reasonable for us, and the attendance was better,” he told AFP.

“But seeing all those top players is also something,” he said, adding he would leave before the end of the tie as he had a train to catch.

The assessment of the event sometimes depended on how the players or teams were doing.

“I think that if we had made the final we would have loved it but…,” Ajla Tomljanovic said after Team Australia was ousted by Switzerland.

Swiss fan Bert Weidmann hailed the event as “great” after the same tie.

“It’s great, we will see different countries in the same place, so it’s great,” he said. “Prague is a nice city, I did sightseeing and I can see the matches and the city.”

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova also praised the “exciting format” after Russia had reached the final.

“It’s better that you have everything in one place during one week. I find it different and fun and I like the atmosphere,” she said.

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