Alicia Molik believes world No.1 Ash Barty’s retirement delivers a great opportunity for Australia’s up-and-coming talent to step up as they try to win the Billie Jean King Cup title.
Team captain Molik and her Ajla Tomljanovic-led squad are in Glasgow, Scotland this week, preparing to face Slovakia then Belgium in group matches for the right to advance to the semi-finals.
Australia made it to the last four in the 2021 Billie Jean King Cup and lost the final to France in Perth three years ago but has not won the competition since 1974.
Barty’s decision in March to end her brilliant career – not even two months after ending the host nation’s Australian Open title drought – makes life more difficult, exacerbated by Daria Saville’s ACL setback in September.
Tomljanovic is Australia’s undoubted spearhead, at a career-high ranking of No.33 and having reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open this year.
Top-20 players Storm Sanders and Ellen Perez, who won’t arrive in Glasgow until Sunday afternoon local time, are almost certain to be Australia’s doubles combination.
Australian great Sam Stosur is also in the squad, while top-10 junior Taylor Preston travelled to Glasgow as a hitting partner.
But Molik is yet to announce who will play against Slovakia, including whether Priscilla Hon will get the chance to compete in the No.2 singles.
“As celebrated as Ash was retiring; I think it sort of paves the way and gives a bit of an opening to every other player in Australia to step up and try and steal that No.1 position in Australia – and in the world,” Molik said.
“Ajla has done that this year with her career-high ranking, being our No.1 Aussie right now. I think that’s important, too, and particularly for someone like Pri, who’s grown up with Ash.
“Ash really led by example … but this is a great opportunity for us. We’ve shown our best tennis is top tennis – it’s tournament-winning, it’s match-winning.”
The clash with Slovakia looms as a must-win for Australia on Tuesday night at 9pm AEDT time, given Molik’s team will start as favourites ahead of a likely tougher challenge against Belgium on Thursday.
Tomljanovic boasts a 3-0 head-to-head record against Slovakia’s top player, 96th-ranked Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, including two straight-sets victories this season.
Australia will also be strongly favoured in doubles play, but the No.2 singles, where Viktoria Kuzmova is a probable starter for Slovakia, could be a tie-swinger.
“It’s exciting … we are looking forward to that challenge,” Molik said.
“I think that really suits us, playing early in the day and on centre court as well … it’s very fitting for us, being recently ranked the No.1 nation in this competition, so I think we’re deserving of that opportunity.
“They’re a tough team, there’s no doubt about it, but I think that the (indoor hardcourt) surface here really suits our team.
“It can be a leveller at times, but I think it’s got just enough pace on it to really suit our players.”
Tomljanovic said a title triumph this weekend would “trump a lot of things I’ve done this year”.