It is 20 years since Britain's women last played in the Fed Cup's elite World Group, but the emergence of Heather Watson and Laura Robson could see the team take a significant step towards that goal this week. The British squad, captained by Judy Murray, are among the favourites to qualify from the Europe/Africa Zone Group One matches in Israel, which would leave them just one win away from returning to the top level.
Watson and Robson, who have climbed to No 41 and No 45 respectively in the world rankings, will spearhead Britain's challenge and will be supported by Johanna Konta (world No 142), who is making her debut, and Anne Keothavong (world No 145), a veteran of 43 rubbers in the competition. Elena Baltacha, who is recovering from ankle surgery and is on course to play again in April, has joined the team in Eilat to offer the benefit of her experience.
Keothavong and Baltacha were the mainstays 12 months ago, when Britain reached the World Group play-offs before losing in Sweden, while the recent progress of 20-year-old Watson and 19-year-old Robson, along with the emergence of 21-year-old Konta, gives hope for long-term success.
"Heather and Laura have had a very exciting last 12 months," Murray said. "I think we're in a very strong position. We have three young players in the team in Laura, Heather and Jo whose careers are very much on the way up. We have the incredible experience of Anne and Bally, who have played so many Fed Cup ties and are just wonderful professionals. It's a great platform and a great opportunity for us to move forward."
The format of the Fed Cup means that most teams outside the World Group compete in only one week of the year. Sixteen countries have gathered in Eilat this week and have been split into four pools of four, the winners of which go into play-offs on Saturday for the right to progress to an April play-off for a place in next year's World Group. Each match consists of two singles rubbers and one doubles.
The draw has been kind to Britain, who have avoided most of the other favourites, including Poland (led by Agnieszka and Urszula Radwanska), Romania (Sorana Cirstea and Andreea Mitu) and Croatia (Donna Vekic and Tereza Mrdeza). In their Pool B matches Britain will face Bosnia/Herzegovina today, Portugal tomorrow and Hungary on Friday.
Hungary, whose best players are Timea Babos (world No 79) and Greta Arn (world No 138), are likely to be Britain's toughest opponents. The Netherlands (Arantxa Rus and Richel Hogenkamp) and Bulgaria (Tsvetana Pironkova and Dia Evtimova) are expected to be the strongest teams in Pool D, who will meet the winners of Pool B on Saturday.
Murray believes success in the competition can play a major part in further developing British women's tennis, which is enjoying its best spell for more than two decades. Watson recently became the first British woman to win a title on the main tour for 24 years, while Robson has beaten three Grand Slam champions – Kim Clijsters, Li Na and Petra Kvitova – in the last two Grand Slam tournaments.
"I think the Fed Cup is the perfect platform to really push more girls and more women into getting into playing tennis," Murray said. "It's pretty much the only team event the girls can all play and get together as a group to represent their country, because on the tour tennis is obviously very much an individual sport. In terms of raising the profile of women's tennis in Britain and growing the profile of our incredible group of female players that we have at the moment, it's absolutely vital."
Fed Cup: Britain's opponents
Europe/Africa Zone Group One:
Venue Eilat, Israel
Pool A Austria, Belarus, Croatia, Georgia
Pool B Britain, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Hungary, Portugal
Pool C Israel, Poland, Romania, Turkey
Pool D Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Slovenia