By Sudipto Ganguly
(Reuters) – The inaugural edition of the revamped women’s team competition, the Billie Jean King Cup, begins on Monday after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic when France launch their title defence at the finals in Prague.
Formerly called the Fed Cup, the event was restructured into a “World Cup of tennis” format concluding with 12 nations competing over one week for the title.
The event was renamed in 2020 in honour of American 12-time Grand Slam champion King, a trailblazer in women’s tennis who was part of the winning team at the inaugural Fed Cup in 1963.
The finals had been scheduled in Budapest in 2020 but were twice postponed. The pandemic has also slashed the total prize money to $6.8 million – about half of the $12 million initially announced for Budapest.
France, who defeated Australia in 2019, have named three of that winning team to defend their title and will start the action at Prague’s O2 Arena against Canada on Monday, with the final scheduled for Nov. 6.
Hosts Czech Republic, Australia, Russia, Belarus, Belgium, the United States, Spain, Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland are the other competing nations.
The sides play two group-stage ties to determine the winners of the four three-team groups, who progress to the semi-finals. Each tie consists of two singles and one doubles match.
Many top players, including the world’s top three women – Australian Ash Barty, Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Czech Karolina Pliskova – will be absent, however.
French Open champion and world number four Barbora Krejcikova will be the highest-ranked player, with other top draws including major champions Angelique Kerber of Germany and American Sloane Stephens and Olympic single gold medallist Belinda Bencic of Switzerland.
Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, ranked fifth in the world, pulled out injured while her 13th-ranked compatriot Paula Badosa withdrew due to scheduling problems. Both have qualified for the season-ending WTA Finals starting Nov. 10 in Mexico.
It will be an emotional week nonetheless for the Spanish side with cancer survivor Carla Suarez Navarro set to end her career in Prague.
The former world number six underwent several months of chemotherapy for early stage Hodgkin lymphoma before returning at the French Open in June.
The 33-year-old will be looking to help Spain win their sixth women’s team title, but they must first get past the United States – the most successful team with 18 titles – and Slovakia in Group C.
“I am really happy to be here one more time to represent Spain,” Suarez Navarro told reporters on Saturday. “This is my last one so I want to really enjoy every moment on court, off court with the team. I’m feeling good.”
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; Editing by Hugh Lawson)
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