Tennis

How doubles debutants Olivia Nicholls and Alicia Barnett made tennis fun again

The roots of Great Britain’s stunning 3-0 win over Spain could be seen in hindsight at the pre-tournament press conference.

Normally, these matters are forced and tedious. But on Monday afternoon, newcomer Olivia Nicholls and stalwart Heather Watson began bantering in thick Australian accents, while their teammates giggled.

A normally forced and tedious affair had become for them something to enjoy, and three days later that sense of fun and camaraderie could be discerned in the teamwork on display against Spain, who looked sad by contrast, as he was overwhelmed by what was, on paper, a much weaker squad.

“The team dynamic has been very different this week,” said Anne Keothavong, the home captain, as Great Britain celebrated their advance to a first Billie Jean King Cup semi-final since 1981.

“I think Liv [Nicholls] and liss [her doubles partner Alicia Barnett] bring something different to the team that we haven’t had before. It’s not just the fact that they specialize in doubles, but that they’ve had a life outside of tennis. In terms of camaraderie, the girls have done a great job this week. The pranks have been great.”

Team spirit might sound like a minor consideration when placed alongside more tangible virtues, like first serve percentage or break point conversion rate. But attitude counts for a lot in tennis, and the sense of elation emanating from Barnett and Nicholls all week, not to mention their two straight-set wins over more experienced opponents, has been the catalyst for Great Britain’s transformation.

“Who’s to say we couldn’t have another 10 years of touring?”

It is ironic to think that these two women, making their Great Britain debut at 29 and 28 respectively, would never have made the squad had it not been for Emma Raducanu’s late withdrawal with a wrist injury. Instead, Raducanu was turning on the Christmas lights at Harrods in central London, though she did take the time to post a celebratory message on Instagram.

Barnett and Nicholls’ last-minute elevation came as a surprise even to themselves. When British universities first came together almost a decade ago, they could not have imagined this scenario.

But their shared trajectory, which involved turning pro in their early 20s, means they share a much broader worldview than the average racquet user. Despite the apparent glamor of the tennis world, many young prodigies are so isolated that they suffer from delayed personal development.

“We are both great examples that you don’t have to turn pro at the age of 16, 17, 18,” Nicholls said. “I went to Loughborough, Lissy went to university in the United States. [in Illinois]and the time we had in college really allowed us to develop as players, as people.

“Then when we went out on tour, we weren’t tired. We were fresh, ready to go. Maybe some people who start their professional career when they are young, can burn out at 22, 23 years old. We’re veterans, if you will, but especially in doubles, who’s to say we couldn’t have another 10 years. on tour?”

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