WORCESTER, MA, USA: When it comes to Fed Cup by BNP Paribas competition it’s hard to ever predict what is going to happen. One scoreline that was definitely not expected is for the United States to come out of the first day tie against Belarus with a substantial 2-0 lead.
Coming into this World Group II first day of action common sense suggested that Victoria Azarenka, the world No. 1, would prevail over American Christina McHale, and former world No. 1 Serena Williams would bypass Olga Govortsova leaving the day at 1-1.
Unfortunately, a sore lower back benched Azarenka, the reigning Australian Open champion, so the entire complexion of the day changed dramatically. Azarenka, who was certified by a neutral physician to have a sufficient enough back problem to not play the match, will be eligible to face Serena Williams on Sunday if she’s feeling better.
US captain Mary Joe Fernandez said she had no idea that Azarenka was going to pull out of the match until she heard the news Saturday morning: “I was warming up with Christina. So maybe an hour before. I was surprised. I saw her practice the last couple days. She was in the gym this morning. It came as a surprise to me.”
The change-up put the 65th-ranked Anastasia Yakimova in against McHale. The two had played in the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open qualifying event -Yakimova won in three sets - but this was their first official meeting.
Yakimova admitted she was surprised to find herself off the bench and on the court.
“This morning practically when I came to the club for warm up because we were all going to warm up,” said Yakimova, of when she learned she would play. “I found out that Vika warmed up and she didn’t feel well. She was in a lot of pain. Yeah, I heard from the captain about 10:30 this morning.
“You never know what’s happening in the last moment. But it’s obviously [a] different situation from what I knew the day before.”
McHale, who came into the match with a 0-3 record in Fed Cup, delivered the first point of the tie by taking a 60 64 win over Yakimova.
“I’ve had a couple of Fed Cup matches before,” McHale said. “I’m so excited to finally win one, and especially at a home tie. It’s extra nice. To be able to help the US get a point for them now in this tie, it feels really good.”
Serena Williams followed McHale on the court to post a 75 60 win over 97th-ranked Olga Govortsova to provide Team USA with a 2-0 lead going into the final day.
The 12th-ranked Williams arrived in Worcester, Mass., still nursing an injured ankle, but said it’s starting to feel much better.
“It’s feeling fine,” Williams said. “I’m surprised as how well it’s doing considering the diagnosis. Yeah, I’m actually really excited about the progress of it. Each day it gets better. Each week it gets better.”
Interestingly, McHale and Williams started their matches strongly, but then faced some challenge by Yakimova and Govortsova, respectively.
McHale dominated Yakimova in the first set, only losing six of the 31 points played. She raced to a 60 4-0 lead when Yakimova, who double faulted eight times in the match, finally found her footing to reel off the next four games. But McHale was able to sturdy herself to win the final two games of the match.
“I started to feel the nerves when I had that big lead in the second, McHale said. “But I was happy that even though I lost a couple of games there, I stayed focused and won those two games at the end.”
Fernandez, who was very animated on the bench with McHale when she faltered on those four games, was delighted that the 19-year-old came through with the win.
“I was very proud [of Christina],” Fernandez said. “That’s one of the things Christina has been working on: closing matches. When you get nervous, being able to push through that, and she did.”
Williams jumped out to a 3-0 lead, but Govortsova pushed back, winning the next three games. At 5-6, Govortsova lost her serve at love to hand Williams the opening set.
In the second set, Govortsova couldn’t contend with Williams and never made it on the scoreboard.
“I relaxed a little bit and started making more shots,” said Williams, of running away with the second set. “I thought she played excellent in the first set. She played pretty well in the second set, but I didn’t make as many errors.”
When Saturday came to a close it was unknown whether Azarenka would attempt to play against Serena Williams in the first match on Sunday. Belarusian captain Tatiana Poutchek said: “We didn’t make that decision yet because she had treatment the whole day today. She was trying with her physio to do the best they can. So we’ll see tomorrow morning.”
As for Williams, she’s prepared to play whoever turns up on court. But she didn’t deny she’s up for the Azarenka challenge: “I honestly want to play her. I think it would be fun for me and for her and for the crowd, more than anything. But we’ll see. It doesn’t really matter.”
The United States holds a record 17 Fed Cup titles, but is playing for the first time in history in the World Group II since that format came into being in 1995. When the US has a 2-0 lead, they have a perfect 17-0 record on winning the tie. The Belarusian’s have never come back from 0-2 behind to win a Fed Cup tie.
Despite the lead -- and the strong possibility that Azarenka might again disappoint -- Fernandez wasn’t ready to act like her squad had picked off the win.
“In team competition, anything can happen,” Fernandez said. “So you have to be ready for every match, approach every match as a big match. Even though were up 2-love, there’s a lot of work to be done still.”
Mary Joe Fernandez (USA) - 04/02/2012
Tatiana Poutchek (BLR) - 04/02/2012
Serena Williams (USA) - 04/02/2012
Christina McHale (USA) - 04/02/2012