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Under-strength Aussies stun Belgium in Billie Jean King Cup

No Ash Barty, no problem for Australia, which recorded a stunning upset victory over Belgium to kick start its 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 her season early to recuperate 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 the tie.

However, Storm Sanders, the world number 131, pulled off the biggest win of her career, beating 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 victory, against Belarus on Thursday, will earn them a place in the last four.

Daria Gavrilova had not played since losing to Ash Barty at the Australian Open.(AP: Petr David Josek)

Gavrilova and Sanders faced a higher-ranked Belgian duo that had already defeated Belarus in the group’s opening tie, 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 hadn’t played since exiting the Australian Open in a loss to Barty, subsequently having Achilles surgery earlier this year, sending her world ranking below 400.

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

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

Sanders’ match with Mertens looked to be going as anticipated when she lost the first set 6-3.

But the second, after a flurry of breaks mid-set, went to a tie-break in which Sanders snatched a convincing 5-1 lead.

That became 5-4 but she recovered to force two set points. After double-faulting on the first Sanders won the second against serve to seal the breaker.

Sanders lost the first set, but stormed back into contention with a battling win 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 last 13 points for an unexpected triumph.

“I don’t think I have played a set that well in my life,” she said. “I don’t think I made an unforced error. I was just enjoying 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 ask playing Mertens but we had a good gameplan, 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 maintain that high as Sanders and Ellen Perez lost the doubles to Mertens and Minnen 6-2 6-4.

In the other daytime match, Russia brought Canada back to earth after they had upset defending champion France on Monday.

Daria Kasatkina eased past Carol Zhao in straight sets, then Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova clinched the win overcoming Rebecca Marino 6-4 4-6 6-2.

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

AAP/ABC


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