MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: The greatest sister act in tennis will be in Fed Cup by BNP Paribas first round action in February. Serena and Venus Williams have committed to play in an intriguing World Group II first round tie between USA and Belarus in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 4-5 February.
American Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez met with a handful of American reporters at the Australian Open on Wednesday morning to announce her team. The other team members are No. 42 Christina McHale and top-ranked doubles specialist Liezel Huber, with No. 95 Sloane Stephens also making the trip just in case she’s needed to step in.
Belarus are expected to field a team bolstered by world No. 3 Victoria Azarenka, who is into the Australian Open semifinals where she’ll play defending champion Kim Clijsters on Thursday. Azarenka’s backup is likely to be No. 63 Anastasiya Yakimova and/or No. 114 Olga Govortsova.
A victory in the upcoming Fed Cup tie is crucial for USA, who have never before been bumped down to World Group II status. In fact, the Americans have the best Fed Cup record in history having won a record 17 Fed Cup titles.
Speculation as to whether the Williams siblings - Serena, a 13-time Grand Slam champion, ranked No. 12, and Venus, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, ranked No. 101 as she has been sidelined by injury of late - would play Fed Cup has been in a heightened state. But this is an Olympic year, and everybody knows the sisters love to play the Olympics.
In order to be named to the Olympic team, players need to make themselves available for Fed Cup. Injuries have kept the Williamses from Fed Cup the past few years. Venus did make the trip to last year's World Group first round when USA lost to Belgium 4-1, in Belgium, but was still dealing with an injury and unable to play. Serena hasn’t been at a tie since the 2008 Beijing Games.
Both sisters are already golden decorated Olympians. Venus won the 2000 Sydney Games gold medal in singles and doubles and the 2008 Beijing Games doubles gold medal, while Serena stood alongside her sister in both of those doubles triumphs, although is still looking for a gold medal in singles.
The real question at the moment has been whether Venus is fit to play. She’s been diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is an auto-immune disease that is known to be energy-sapping.
Fernandez had a smile on her face when she revealed that Venus, who skipped playing the Australian Open, has been keeping in touch with her and feels ready to play.
“I’ve been talking to Venus for a while now and she didn’t want to come here because she didn’t yet feel 100 per cent, so I told her to keep me posted, let me know how you’re feeling,” said Fernandez.
“The first week she told me she’s practising and I’ll call you next week. Then she called me a week ago and said, ‘I’m feeling so much better, I’m going to enter tournaments and I want to go, I think I’m ready.' I told her okay, but I kept calling her every few days to make sure her progress was steady.”
Fernandez admits that while Venus is on the team she’ll have to see with her own eyes how she is in practice before actually playing her.
“If she’s good then there’s a pretty good chance (she’ll play),” Fernandez said. “She’s adding tournaments to her schedule so to me that’s a positive sign. We have options now; if she doesn’t play the first day, maybe she plays the second day, or maybe she just plays the doubles, which is a good possibility.
“But knowing that there’s a good chance she can play is a big intimidation factor.”
Fernandez found that Venus, despite being unable to play when she travelled with the team to Belgium, definitely enjoyed the Fed Cup atmosphere.
“I have to say she was the greatest team member and I was not expecting it,” Fernandez said. “She went to every practice. She played every Pictionary game every night with us. She was wonderful and I think she had a good time. It was fun to see at her stage that passion to want to play.”
Serena heads to Worcester off of a disappointing Australian Open campaign where she was upset in the fourth round by Ekaterina Makarova 62 63. Serena’s been nursing an ankle injury, but she left Melbourne planning to be fit for Fed Cup.
“I’m gonna play Fed Cup,” Serena said in her Australian Open departing press conference. “I look forward to that.”
Serena then spoke about wanting to compete at the 2012 London Games, where she and Venus will definitely get into the Olympic scene. At Beijing they did what many Olympians do - they were into collecting pins from the different sports and countries and wore their booty proudly on their Olympic badge.
“They’re (the Olympics) very important to me,” Serena said. “You know, I would love to be there and play, try to do the best I can and get more medals for the USA. Playing on grass (at Wimbledon) I think would be really cool. It would be fun. So I think it will be great.”
Fernandez, who was in Australia commentating for ESPN, kept up with Serena throughout her stay Down Under. She knew that Serena was not playing at 100 per cent of her capabilities with the ankle injury.
“Maybe it’s a blessing for me in disguise that she has some time now to rest, heal it and rehab it,” Fernandez said. “I’m hoping, I’m praying she’ll be there and I don’t think it’s bad enough for her not to go.”
Fernandez is aware that Azarenka is a formidable foe for her team. She also knows that sometimes past history can play with the mind of an opponent and if she plays Serena and Venus in singles they both have a winning record against Azarenka. Serena holds a 6-1 edge over the Belarusian and won their last meeting in straight sets at the 2011 US Open. Venus holds a 2-0 lead with their last meeting a straight set final affair at 2010 Dubai.
“She (Azarenka) could be a Grand Slam champion (when she leaves here),” Fernandez said. “That’s why in my mind I’m prepared it could go down to the (fifth rubber) doubles. If it comes down to it and everybody is healthy, I would think (I’ll play) Venus and Serena. That’s the best team.”
The deadline for nations playing in World Group and World Group II first round ties to submit their official team nominations to the ITF is 25 January.