On a Saturday evening in Prague, Liudmila Samsonova, a 22-year-old Russian, prepared herself to close out a match against Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic, an opponent she’d already beaten both times they’d played this year.

But on this occasion, Samsonova wasn’t just playing for herself. She was seeking to close out the Billie Jean King Cup, the international women’s team event previously known as Fed Cup. Russia had won this title four times, paced in its glory years by such notables as Elena Dementieva, Anastasia Myskina, and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Switzerland, never a winner, was in the finals for the first time since 1998, the prime years of two of tennis’ most exquisite and eclectic disruptors, Martina Hingis and Patty Schnyder.

If the good news for the 40th-ranked Samsonova was her 2-0 record versus world No. 17 Bencic, the bad news was that Bencic had thoroughly proven herself exceptionally skilled when competing for her homeland. Back in 2018 and ’19, she’d joined forces with Roger Federer to win the Hopman Cup two straight times. This past August, Bencic was the tennis star of the Tokyo Olympics, earning a gold medal in singles and a silver in the doubles with Viktorija Golubic. In Prague, she’d been undefeated in four matches. Most notable were Bencic’s heroics on Thursday, when Switzerland beat the Czech Republic—a singles win versus reigning Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova and, alongside nimble lefty Jil Teichmann, a decisive doubles victory.

So there was Samsonova, serving at 5-4 in the third set. The first set had largely gone Bencic’s way, the Swiss digging in right from the start to pin Samsonova with depth and consistency. But in the second set, Samsonova found a higher gear of power and focus. Repeatedly, she made Bencic look passive, far less forceful and increasingly discouraged. This pattern from both players continued early in the third set. Samsonova immediately broke Bencic and went ahead 2-0. Though Bencic tenaciously fought off three break points to keep from going down a double break, she was rarely able to derail Samsonova’s repeated firepower, a stream of big serves and deep, concussive groundstrokes.

And yet, as much as Samsonova had dictated play for the last two sets, as badly as Bencic had trailed throughout the entire third set, the first two points of that 5-4 game were deeply pivotal. On the first point, Samsonova netted a forehand, precisely the kind of nervous error Bencic hoped to capitalize on. At 0-15, the two engaged in a long rally. In control of the tempo, Bencic lined up a facile forehand, opened her racquet face to hit a drop shot—but, alas, committed the cardinal sin of hitting it wide. A relieved and relaxed Samsonova fired an ace down the middle. A demoralized Bencic misfired on two straight backhands. Samsonova’s 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win made Russia the winner of the Billie Jean King Cup for the first time since 2008.


Russia won their first four Billie Jean King Cup titles in a five-year span from 2004 to 2008. Now, a fifth title in 2021.

Russia won their first four Billie Jean King Cup titles in a five-year span from 2004 to 2008. Now, a fifth title in 2021.

By dint of her 5-0 record this week, make Samsonova the 2021 Billie Jean King Cup’s Rookie of the Year and MVP. On Friday, she’d earned both winning points to eliminate the U.S. squad, beating Sloane Stephens, 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, then partnering with Veronika Kudermetova to defeat Shelby Rogers and CoCo Vandeweghe, 6-3, 6-3, in the decisive doubles match. Samsonova and Kudermetova also handily won doubles matches versus Canada and France.

Prior to Samsonova’s clinching effort, Russia had taken a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Daria Kasatkina’s wire-to-wire 6-2, 6-4 win over Teichmann. Nervous as Teichmann was in dropping the first five games, much of her trouble was the result of an exceptionally focused Kasatkina. Throughout her career, Kasatkina has shown a strong creative streak, a penchant for eclectic spins and paces that is pleasing to watch. But she’s also occasionally prone to lapses in concentration that trigger lackluster play. None of that surfaced versus Teichmann, Kasatkina eschewing variety in favor of sustained depth, movement and, only when necessary, point-ending groundstrokes. It was a masterful effort, Kasatkina at her most inspired.

Team play in tennis is often enthralling. Some believe there should be more team tennis-style events, all the better to repeat the intensity that accompanies collaboration in a sport inherently comprised of solo acts. Beyond the world-class level, team events—from age groups to college tennis to recreational leagues—have become the lifeblood of the avocational tennis experience. My belief is that what makes them special for the world’s very best is their scarcity—a rare and compelling version of the pressure situations Billie Jean King so savors. How fantastic that the event which now bears her name finished with such a first-rate effort from a newcomer. As Samsonova said following her win over Bencic, “It’s more than tennis.”