WORCESTER, MA, USA: The biggest surprise to come out of the USA v Belarus Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II draw ceremony came from the United States team.
It was a given that Serena Williams will bolster the American squad as their No. 1 player. But Serena’s big sis, Venus, will not be backing her up as the No. 2 singles player. Instead, 38th-ranked Christina McHale will open the tie for Team USA on Saturday, squaring off against Victoria Azarenka, the newly minted world No. 1 and reigning Australian Open champion.
US captain Mary Joe Fernandez explained her decision to play McHale instead of the 113rd-ranked Venus Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam champion. Williams has been dealing with Sjogren Syndrome, an auto-immune disease, and hasn’t played of late.
“Christina is very match-fit,” Fernandez said. “She had a great Australian Open [losing to Jelena Jankovic in the third round] and is very prepared and ready to go. Venus has had a great week of practice as well, but I think Christina has been playing a lot more. Venus hasn’t played really since the US Open, so I need her fresh for Sunday.
“Christina is ready for the challenge, so that’s the scoop.”
Azarenka not taking things lightly
McHale, who is 0-3 in Fed Cup play, said she wasn’t concerned about the responsibility of starting the tie off for the Americans.
“At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter who goes first,” said McHale, who retired against Azarenka during their one previous match at the 2010 Charleston tournament. “You take it as it’s your match, so you’re first on or you’re second on, like you’re at a tournament.”
Azarenka, who boasts a 10-4 Fed Cup record, is brimming with confidence these days as she should, but she certainly wasn’t taking her opening encounter with McHale lightly, saying, “I think she’s a very good player. Obviously, young and coming up. She has a lot of motivation playing in front of the home crowd. She’s had some good results, played some good matches against top players and had a few big wins, so she’s a dangerous opponent.”
The 12th-ranked Serena Williams, who has a 7-0 overall Fed Cup record, plays the second match against 97th-ranked Olga Govortsova to close out Friday’s schedule. Govortsova owns a 15-5 Fed Cup record in the four years she’s played, and is 11-4 in singles action.
“I’ve played her before as well, so this is a good opportunity,” said Serena Williams, who beat Govortsova at their 2008 Olympic meeting. “She’s actually a really good player. She has a solid ranking...just play for my country and do the best I can.”
Govortsova is looking forward to the opportunity to play Fed Cup at a heightened level, saying, “This is kind of a new level for us, because I played Fed Cup for like three, four years, and we never pass that group in January. So finally last year we did a great job.”
Battle of the Grand Slam champions
Certainly, the match everybody is waiting for in this titanic Fed Cup tie is the battle between Serena Williams, a former No. 1 and 13-time Grand Slam champion, and Azarenka.
Serena Williams said she wasn’t expecting to face a different Azarenka in respect to the Belarusian’s recent success: “I don’t think it’ll be any different. She’s still a great player like she’s been in the past. The same with me. We’re just here to do the best for our country.”
The second singles on Sunday features Govortsova against McHale - this will be their first career meeting. If this tie goes down to the doubles, world No. 1 Liezel Huber is scheduled to partner Venus Williams against Azarenka and Govortsova.
Venus Williams has a 17-4 overall record in Fed Cup and a 3-2 record in doubles. Huber has a 15-5 overall Fed Cup record, losing the one singles match she’s played. Azarenka is 4-1 in Fed Cup doubles while Govortsova is 3-1 in doubles.
The United States has been a record 17-time Fed Cup champion and is playing in the World Group II for the first time ever. Belarus has never played beyond the World Group II level in Fed Cup action.
The full draw is listed below.
R1: McHale (USA) v Azarenka (BLR)
R2: S.Williams (USA) v Govortsova (BLR)
R3: S.Williams (USA) v Azarenka (BLR)
R4: McHale (USA) v Govortsova (BLR)
R5: Huber / V.Williams (USA) v Azarenka / Govortsova (BLR)
Victoria Azarenka (BLR) - 03/02/12
Venus Williams (USA) - 03/02/12
Olga Govortsova (BLR) - 03/02/12
Christina McHale (USA) - 03/02/12
Captain Tatiana Poutchek (BLR) - 03/02/12
Serena Williams (USA) - 03/02/12