Australia is two wins from ending a near-50-year drought at the Billie Jean King Cup after advancing to the semi-finals with an impressive victory over Belgium in Scotland.
Storm Sanders paved the way for Australia’s upset with a 6-2 6-2 thrashing of 54th-ranked Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck before Ajla Tomljanovic clinched the win over Elise Mertens.
Australia last won the BJK Cup title in 1974, when it was known as the Fed Cup, but also made the semi-finals last year and the final in 2019 in Perth, with Covid wiping out the 2020 event.
Great Britain scored an incredible boilover against Paula Badosa-led Spain on Friday to book a Saturday night (9pm AEDT) date with Australia, which will fancy its chances of making the final.
The other semi-finalists are yet to be determined.
Alicia Molik’s squad entered its final group B clash knowing a 2-1 loss to Belgium could be enough to progress, because of the latter’s shock defeat to Slovakia.
Australia still needed to win at least one set to advance – in the No.1 singles or doubles – after Sanders’ demolition of Van Uytvanck.
The tie looked set to go to a deciding doubles rubber when Belgian trump card Mertens, fresh from her WTA Finals doubles title, raced to a set and double-break lead over Tomljanovic.
But Tomljanovic reeled off five games in a row to snatch the second set, an effort that sealed Australia’s semi-final berth regardless of what was to come.
The belief she gained from making quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open in a career-best year undoubtedly helped in those tough moments.
Mertens’ serve failed her – she finished with 10 double faults – but she took a medical time-out to have her right shoulder assessed at 4-5 in set two in the first hint at what was going wrong.
The Belgian star retired from the match soon after while trailing 4-6 6-4 3-0.
“It’s always bittersweet when someone has to retire but I think we won it even after I won that (second) set, so that feels good,” Tomljanovic said.
“I just fought until the end. My back was against the wall (and) I was getting ready to cheer loud in the doubles but it’s tennis – it’s never over until it’s over.
“We have the best cheering squad … and you feel that good energy, so it definitely got me over the line.”
With Australia missing retired world No.1 Ash Barty and the injured Daria Saville, Molik ignored the rankings to install Sanders as the No.2 singles player this week behind Tomljanovic.
The West Australian, ranked 237 after previously being as high as No.119, responded by winning both her singles matches to be a key reason for her country’s success to date.
She is getting married this month at the end of her best season on court, including winning the US Open mixed doubles title with John Peers as she broke into the top 10 in that form of the game.
It is the second-straight year Sanders saved her best for Belgium in the team competition.
She stunned Mertens in three sets as the interim No.1 player a year ago, without Barty and last-minute withdrawal Tomljanovic on that occasion.
“I feel like I have always believed that I can perform at this level – not just for my country, but week in, week out at WTA events,” Sanders said.
“But obviously representing your country is a whole other level … I absolutely love playing for Australia. For me, it’s the biggest honour.
“The thing I want to do the most in my tennis career would be to win the Billie Jean King Cup for my country.”
Molik chose to partner Sanders with Sam Stosur in the doubles, replacing top-20 doubles player Ellen Perez after losing that rubber against Slovakia.
The Australian combination beat Kirsten Flipkens and Ysaline Bonaventure 6-4 6-3 to complete a clean sweep.