Australia face hard test in Billie Jean King Cup finals

Australia have been handed the toughest possible task to repeat their 2022 Billie Jean King Cup heroics when the draw was made for this year's competition.

While given a bye in the opening round the nation's female tennis players are likely to face a challenging quarter-final against the United States in the November finals. Defending champions Canada would then be probable semi-final opposition.

The US, 18-times champions, will need to get past Slovakia in the opening round first, but will be strong favourites to do so. Canada, meanwhile, will face either Great Britain or Germany in their quarter-final.

In a tough segment in the other half of the draw hosts Spain face Poland, who are likely to have world No.1 Iga Swiatek in their team, with the winners facing Czech Republic, who have two singles players in the world's top 12 and two others in the top 20 doubles.

Australia made the final in 2022, losing to Switzerland, but will be hard-put to do so again, and not just because two key players, Ajla Tomljanovic and Storm Hunter, are fitness doubts.

The US, their likely last eight opponents, are spoiled for choice in singles and doubles.

They currently boast two of the top five singles players in the world, No.3 Coco Gauff and No.5 Jessica Pegula. In-form Danielle Collins is ranked 15th, Madison Keys 20th and Emma Navarro 25th. Another eight players are in the top 100.

Pegula and Navarro featured in their comfortable qualifying win over Belgium

In doubles the US has ten players in the top 50, headed by specialists Nicole Melichar-Martinez (7) and Taylor Townsend (11) followed by Pegula, Desirae Krawczyk (15) and Gauff (17).

Australia's only top-100 singles player is Daria Saville, ranked 96th with Arina Rodionova next best at 104. Tomljanovic reached a career-best singles ranking of No 32 in April 2023 but has since been ravaged by illness and injury and last played in January.

Australia are much better served in doubles with Hunter (3) and Ellen Perez (equal 7th with Melichar-Martinez) a strong combination.

However, Hunter is currently injured having ruptured her Achilles tendon in the final practice before Australia beat Mexico in the qualifiers in Brisbane in April. She should be back on court by November, but might not be match-sharp.

Australia's 2022 Billie Jean King Cup finalists
Australia were runners-up in 2022, beaten in the final in Glasgow by Switzerland. (AP PHOTO)

Even if she is fit, with each tie consisting of two singles matches followed by a doubles the tie could be over before Hunter and Perez get on court.

Slovakia reached this stage with a 4-0 win over Slovenia - the team who beat Australia in last year's finals, knocking them out in the group stage.

They have one player in the top 100, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. The 29-year-old has only once reached the second round of a major, making the fourth round at Roland Garros last year, and last won a Tour title in 2018. In doubles they have Tereza Mihalikova (world No.64) and Viktoria Hruncakova (ranked 100) who paired up against Slovenia.

Twelve teams qualified for the finals with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) announcing last week that the format had been changed from groups to a straight knockout.

Four seeded nations -- Canada, Italy, Czech Republic and Australia -- received byes to the last eight in Tuesday's draw, made in London.

Seville's La Cartuja Stadium will host the finals with the opening round matches from November 12-14, followed by the quarter-finals on November 15-17 and the semi-finals November 18-19. The final will be on November 20.

with Reuters