WORCESTER, MA, USA: Before everyone gathered in Worcester, Mass., for the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II first round tie between USA and Belarus there was great anticipation for a weekend that could go down to the final doubles rubber.
The United States had Serena and Venus Williams on board, the quickly improving Christina McHale and top-ranked doubles star, Liezel Huber. The Belarusian’s had the best player in the world in Victoria Azarenka, who journeyed to No. 1 on the wings of her Australian Open victory last weekend.
In advance of the tie, American Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez was expecting a serious battle this weekend, saying, “It’s a tough match-up, having Azarenka coming off winning the Australian Open. She’s confident. That’s always tough.”
Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t going to be as tough as expected. The U.S. commanded a 5-0 victory as the Belarusian’s competed without Azarenka. The world No. 1 benched herself with a sore lower back, leaving countrywomen Olga Gorvortsova, Anastasiya Yakimova and Darya Kustova to try and bring home the weekend for Belarus.
“I think it was unfortunate that Victoria Azarenka, our No. 1, couldn’t play,” said Tatiana Poutchek, the Belarusian captain. “But I think it was a good experience for our team. I mean, we’re going to get better from this.”
Coming out of day one, USA had a strong 2-0 lead. McHale, who entered the weekend with a 0-3 record in the competition, won her first Fed Cup match with a 60 64 victory over Yakimova, subbing for Azarenka. Serena followed with a 75 60 win over Govortsova in the second match.
On Sunday, Serena returned to the court and eventually worked out a 57 61 61 win over Yakimova, McHale won her second Fed Cup match, albeit a dead rubber match, with a 60 61 win over Kustova, and Huber and Venus, playing together for the first time, outplayed Yakimova and Kustova 61 62.
For Venus, stepping out on the court for an official match was a major achievement. She’s been trying to work through being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disease that causes patients to feel fatigued.
“It felt great,” said Venus, when asked how it felt to be back in action. “It felt great to win the first service game. It felt great to come back from those 0-40 games down 2-0. It felt good to be able to move the ball. It felt good when Liezel helped me out. It was everything I expected.”
Now with all the work done this weekend, the Americans can look ahead to a shot at recapturing World Group status for 2013 this coming April. USA will compete in the World Group play-offs, while Belarus will take their place in the World Group II play-offs.
USA have won the Fed Cup a record 17 times. This is the first time since the World Group concept of best-of-five matches in a home-and-away format was introduced to the competition in 1995 that they have been bounced back to World Group II status.
“It will be great,” Fernandez said. “You don’t want to be in this group any extra time. It was big to win this one. Now we have another task in front of us. We’re going to do our best to win the next tie so we can be back in the World Group next year.”
USA and Belarus are both awaiting the Draw for the World Group and World Group II play-offs, which is taking place in London on 14 February, to learn their next opponent. USA are bidding for promotion, while Belarus are hoping to avoid the drop to Group I.