Two matches into Great Britain’s first appearance at home in the Billie Jean King Cup, frustration was growing. Both singles contests against Kazakhstan had ended in defeat, their chances of a deep run already fading.
For Olivia Nicholls and Alicia Barnett, though, merely being present was a win. While finding motivation in dead rubbers can be difficult, they stepped out on to the court determined to play their best and enjoy the moment. Not only did they win in straight sets, but their passion and vitality energised their teammates, who ended a difficult day smiling. It marked the first step towards an incredible recovery: on Thursday Britain demolished Spain to reach Saturday’s semi-finals.
The pivotal role of Barnett and Nicholls was improbable for so many reasons. For one thing, there was initially no room for them in the squad. The captain, Anne Keothavong, had chosen four obvious singles players, with only one place remaining. But Emma Raducanu’s withdrawal from the event led to a change of approach. She opted to give GB’s best doubles team a chance.
Their rise has been a revelation in itself. Rather than taking the traditional pathway into tennis, turning professional in their youth, both players opted to first attend university, with Nicholls at Loughborough University while Barnett studied at Northwestern University in the United States.
Since turning professional in 2016 and 2017, Barnett and Nicholls have spent almost their entire professional careers grinding in the lower levels of the ITF circuit. Neither had ever even reached the top 200 until last year and they started this season ranked 184th and 187th.
Despite playing together occasionally in the past, they began their partnership full time in 2021 and things have rapidly clicked into place. They made their tour debut together in Lyon at the beginning of the year, immediately reaching the final. In August, they won their first WTA title in Granby, Canada. They have both risen over 120 places in the rankings this year to 60th and 63rd, meaning 2023 will mark their first full year on the WTA tour.
Nicholls believes that their success demonstrates the varied pathways for professional tennis players and that turning professional at a young age isn’t always a necessity.
“I think the time we had at university really allowed us to develop as players, as people,” she said. “Then when we did come out on to the tour, we weren’t tired. We were fresh, ready to go. Maybe some people, when they go out to start their professional careers when they are young, they might get burnt out at the age of 22, 23. We are veterans, as it were, but especially in doubles, who’s to say we couldn’t have another 10 years on the tour?”
Barnett concurred: “We weren’t the best juniors ever, but we love tennis and we just kept plugging on. I hope that this is an example for the younger generation, if you have a dream, just go for it.”
On Thursday, Barnett became emotional as she described how her father, a devoted tennis fan, drove from Gloucestershire to Glasgow alone and her mother, who passed away a few years ago, would have revelled in her success.
“I don’t think Liv and I at the age of 15 really truly believed that was going to happen, but we wanted it. We tried and we got here and we are in the semi-final,” said Barnett.
They head to GB’s first semi-final in 41 years against Australia having played a leading role in their team’s success, and should it come down to a deciding doubles rubber, they will be ready.
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