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Australia loses Billie Jean King Cup opener to Slovenia as Molik gamble fails

Alicia Molik speaks to Ajla Tomljanovic in Seville on Tuesday night.

Alicia Molik speaks to Ajla Tomljanovic in Seville on Tuesday night. Photo: ITF/Getty

Alicia Molik’s faith in Ajla Tomljanovic and Daria Saville has backfired, with the returning duo suffering straight-sets losses to send Australia to defeat in its opening match at the Billie Jean King Cup finals.

Molik had backed the pair, both on the comeback trail after injuries, to get the job done after being left with only three certain starters for Tuesday night’s clash with Slovenia in Spain.

A scheduling fiasco and the weather gods forced out Ellen Perez, while newly crowned world No.1 doubles ace Storm Hunter was only due to land in Seville 45 minutes before the tie started.

Perez resorted to asking for a ride on social media after losing the rain-delayed WTA Finals doubles decider in Cancun with her American partner Nicole Melichar-Martinez on Tuesday morning (AEDT).

Hunter made it out of Mexico 12 hours earlier after falling in the semi-finals but remains in extreme doubt, with Molik telling AAP the 29-year-old can make her own call about playing or not.

Either way the skipper felt Saville, Tomljanovic and Kim Birrell Australia had the class to prevail in the best-of-three-match fixture.

In fact, Molik has so much belief in the second-ranked Australian team that made last year’s final she categorically ruled out naming squad reserve Olivia Gadecki as a replacement.

Molik opted for Tomljanovic, currently ranked No.549 in the world, and Saville as the two singles players, with Saville to partner Birrell in the doubles – unless Hunter says she’s fine to take the court.

Alas, Tomljanovic, playing in only her sixth match of the season after missing most of 2023 following knee surgery in January, crashed to a 6-4 6-1 loss to 22-year-old Kaja Juvan, the world No.104.

“It was an awkward match for me,” said Tomljanovic. “I thought I had so many opportunities. I lost that first set and almost felt like I should have won it. That didn’t help.

“I don’t think I channelled it in a right way. Feeling like I’ve missed too many of the opportunities made me feel like she had a little bit of a mental edge. That’s not helping when you’ve got to be quick to turn it around.”

However, Tomljanovic could see positives in simply being on court, competing.

“The biggest takeaway is that my knee is good. I have had some big rallies, some hustles, and not thinking about my knee compared to my previous matches That’s a great sign.

“I’m back playing, and this is so much more valuable than a training week.”

Saville then lost to the world No.100 Tamara Zidansek, a 2021 French Open semi-finalist, 6-1 6-4.

Saville and Birrell are slated to face Juvan and Zidansek in the doubles which could gain Australia a valuable point, but if Hunter presents in shape to play, the captain will let the left-hander choose her own partner.

“She’s No.1 in the world – she can pick whoever she wants to play with,” Molik said.

Molik’s dilemma is largely due to the WTA scheduling the so-called “women’s World Cup of tennis” in Spain just two days after the completion of the showpiece season-ending championships staged on another continent.

Australia play their second tie on Thursday against Kazakhstan, with only the four group winners progressing to the semi-finals.

Champions seven times but not since 1974, Australia have made the semi-finals for the past three years and lost the 2022 title match to Switzerland.

-AAP

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