Australia surprises Belgium in Billie Jean King Cup with victories for Storm Sanders and Daria Gavrilova

No Ash Barty, no problem for Australia, who recorded a stunningly upset victory over Belgium to launch their Billie Jean King Cup campaign in Prague.

Missing world number one Barty – who led Australia to the final of the competition then known as the Fed Cup in 2019, but ended his season early to recover ahead of the 2022 Australian Open – and forced to deal with the late withdrawal of world number 39 Ajla Tomljanović due to a non-COVD related illness – Australia were serious underdogs in a draw.

Storm Sanders, world number 131, however, got the biggest win of her career and beat world number 18 Elise Mertens 3-6 7-6 (7-5) 6-0 to give Australia an unassailable 2-0 lead.

Earlier, Daria Gavrilova marked her return from a long-term injury to beat world number 70 Greet Minnen 6-4 1-6 6-4.

Another win, against Belarus on Thursday, will give them a place in the last four.

Daria Gavrilova swings her right arm over her body with a clenched fist and cries with her mouth open
Daria Gavrilova had not played since the loss to Ash Barty at the Australian Open.(AP: Petr David Josek)

Gavrilova and Sanders faced a higher-ranked Belgian duo who had already defeated Belarus in the group’s opening match, but got off to a perfect start when Gavrilova stunned 24-year-old Minnen in three sets.

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“I’m exhausted, but I’m really excited,” the 27-year-old said.

Gavrilova had not played since leaving the Australian Open in a loss to Barty, and subsequently underwent Achilles surgery earlier this year, sending her world rankings below 400.

After winning the first set, Gavrilova needed a medical time-out after surrendering the second, but returned with heavy ties on his left thigh and, crucially, more zippers in his service game.

At 5-4, she broke Minnen to take the match and put Australia 1-0 ahead.

Sanders’ match with Mertens seemed to go as expected as she lost the first set 6-3.

But the second, after a shower of breaks in the middle of the set, went to a tie-break where Sanders snatched a convincing 5-1 lead.

It became 5-4, but she managed to force two set points. After a double fault on the first, Sanders won the second against serve to seal the breaker.

Storm Sanders throws a tennis ball in the air with outstretched arm
Sanders lost the first set, but stormed back into battle with a battle victory in the second.(AP: Petr David Josek)

Sanders then played inspired tennis to run away with the third set 6-0, winning 12 of the final 13 points to an unexpected triumph.

“I don’t think I’ve played a set so well in my life,” she said. “I do not think I made a forced mistake. I just enjoyed it.”

It was Sanders’ first win over a top-20 player.

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“It feels absolutely amazing,” she said.

“I knew it was a tough question to play Mertens, but we had a good game plan, I went out and executed, and even though I lost the first set, I felt like I was still in control.”

It proved impossible to hold so high as Sanders and Ellen Perez lost the double to Mertens and Minnen 6-2 6-4.

In the second match in the daytime, Russia brought Canada back to earth after disturbing defending champions France on Monday.

Daria Kasatkina slipped past Carol Zhao in equal sets, after which Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova won the victory over Rebecca Marino 6-4 4-6 6-2.

Russia’s dominance was completed in the doubles, with Veronika Kudermetova and Liudmila Samsonova defeating Gabriela Dabrowski and Marino 6-3 6-1.

AAP / ABC

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