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Steve Flink: Fed Cup Reflections

2/7/2012 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The good news about the U.S-Belarus Fed Cup contest in Worcester, Massachusetts last weekend was that Serena Williams was available to play in two singles matches, and her sister Venus competed for the first time in official competition since her opening round triumph at the U.S. Open late last August. The American fans had the opportunity to see two of the biggest names in the world of women’s tennis on a single weekend, and both Serena and Venus did not simply show up. They competed with vigor and gave the spectators good value for money.

But the presence of the Williams sisters was not enough to diminish the impact of Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal. The Australian Open champion made the trip to join her teammates in Massachusetts, hoping to put herself on the line and represent her country. But her ailing back stiffened up, and Azarenka made the difficult decision not to play either Saturday or Sunday for Belarus. Clearly, Belarus was not going to have a chance to stop the Americans without Azarenka winning two singles matches, and her absence took some of the drama and sparkle out of the competition. It would have been particularly compelling to witness Azarenka against Serena Williams only one week after Azarenka had captured her first Grand Slam singles title. Predictably, the U.S. women were significantly better than the women from Belarus. The Americans conceded only one set all weekend, casting aside their rivals 5-0.

Not only did Serena Williams capture both of her singles contests, but Christina McHale also secured two singles victories. Venus Williams played in the last match with Liezel Huber, and they swept to an easy doubles win. All in all, it was a good couple of days for the Americans, who performed well indoors at home. They handled themselves admirably in light of Azarenka’s surprising departure. There was always a danger of extreme overconfidence from the Americans, and they simply did not allow that to happen.

McHale opened the proceedings with a 6-0, 6-4 win over Anastasiya Yakimova, who stepped in to replace Azarenka under stressful circumstances. Yakimova was up 40-15 on serve in the opening game of the encounter, but fell into disarray, and McHale took complete control of the contest. The American won the first ten games of the match to lead 6-0, 4-0. With an uncomfortable Yakimova not operating at full efficiency and hurting herself repeatedly with unprovoked mistakes, McHale was picking her rival apart methodically. McHale had a break point for 5-0 in the second set, but Yakimova kept herself alive by moving forward to play a forehand swing volley that set up a forehand drop volley winner.

That point nearly altered the course of the set. McHale has some of the best ball control in women’s tennis and she should have closed the match out comfortably. But the American allowed Yakimova all the way back to 4-4 in that pendulum swinging second set. Yakimova was up 40-30 in the ninth game and was dictating an increasing number of points as McHale seemed struck by nerves. But McHale restored her conviction just in time. Yakimova backed off, trying too many sliced backhands as she stood one point away from a 5-4 lead. She finally missed one, allowing the American back to deuce. Then Yakimova double faulted, and sent an inside-out forehand wide. McHale had the break for 5-4. Serving for the match, a still tense McHale trailed 0-30, but she collected four points in a row to record a 6-0, 6-4 victory. At 30-30, her backhand sliced approach down the line was outstanding, provoking a running forehand passing shot error from Yakimova, and at match point McHale’s heavy kicking second serve was too good for her opponent.

Out stepped Serena Williams, eager and confident with the U.S out in front 1-0. Playing her first match since suffering a stunning upset at the hands of left-hander Ekaterina Makarova at the Australian Open, Serena was sharp and aggressive at the outset against Olga Govortsova, sweeping 13 of 18 points on her way to a 3-0 lead. Williams had a break point for 4-0 but missed a difficult forehand return. Govortsova held on for 1-3 and then broke the American in the following game as Serena committed four glaring unforced errors. Govortsova held at love for 3-3. Both players held from there until Govortsova served at 5-6. Down 0-40 in that twelfth game, sensing Serena was going to step in and drill an aggressive return, Govortsova double faulted. Set to the American, 7-5.

The match was as good as over. Williams swept the last eight games altogether, settling down in the second set and suffering no more lapses. She was victorious 7-5, 6-0, and so the U.S. needed only one more victory to stop Belarus in the best of five match series. Yakimova had the unenviable assignment of trying to stop Serena in the opening match of the second day. She gave it everything she had. A subdued Williams lost her serve in the opening game of the match, but soon established a 4-1 lead. The American had three break points for 5-1 but missed returns on all of them. Yakimova stormed back to 4-4, then held at love to make it 5-5.

At that stage of the match, an off key Williams had made 25 unforced errors, 15 more than her adversary. Serena was broken again at 5-5. At break point down, she attempted a surprise serve-and-volley combination, but her first volley was weak and Yakimova’s subsequent passing shot was too sharp. Yakimova held on to win the set 7-5. Yakimova had won six of seven games from 1-4 down, and the 30-year-old American was not where she wanted to be. The second set was locked at 1-1, but thereafter Williams began opening up the court exceptionally well, exploring the sharp angles to take Yakimova out of her rhythm, forcing her opponent to cover a lot of territory. Williams captured five games in a row to make it back to one set all.

Williams allowed Yakimova only six points in the last five games of the second set. There was no stopping Serena now. She broke to start the final set, then held for 2-0. Williams had now won seven games in a row. Yakimova held in the third game, but she no longer had anything left in her limited arsenal to bother the American. Williams won two love games in a row to reach 4-1, survived a tough game on serve to hold with an ace for 5-1, and easily broke Yakimova to complete a convincing 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 victory. The Americans had stopped Belarus, but two meaningless matches remained.

McHale cast aside Darya Kustova of Belarus 6-0, 6-1, and then the fans had the chance to see Venus Williams join Liezel Huber for a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Kustova and Yakimova. In many ways, that match was the highlight of the weekend. Venus’s service toss looked too low at times, but she returned well and was bolstered by the presence of Huber, one of the world’s finest doubles players. Huber has secured five majors in women’s doubles, including the U.S. Open last year. She has won 48 doubles titles altogether. And she plays doubles the old fashioned way, attacking the net unwaveringly, volleying soundly, hitting her overhead with unbridled passion.

Williams and Huber were a delight to watch during their doubles triumph. Huber’s capacity to keep going forward and take command at the net allowed Williams the luxury of setting up her partner with the force of her ground game. Williams herself went in selectively and contributed significantly at the net. The Americans overwhelmed their opponents with the nature of their attacking tennis.

To be sure, the competition in Massachusetts would have been considerably more intriguing had Azarenka been able to compete. Her career long issues with injuries and illnesses remain a serious problem for the 22-year-old. Having watched this magnificent player perform so prodigiously in Melbourne, close followers of women’s tennis do not want to see her year disrupted by any ongoing struggles with an uncooperative body or bad health. She will be a crucial player in the weeks and months ahead on the WTA Tour. Azarenka is someone the galleries will want to see wherever she goes. It was sad to see her relegated to the bench during this Fed Cup first round showdown, but hopefully she will recover soon and resume her winning ways.

On the flip side of the coin, it was encouraging that Serena Williams fulfilled her commitment to play Fed Cup. She disappeared for too long after reaching the final of the 2011 U.S. Open and did not play a tournament for the rest of that year after reaching the final in New York. She did play a few matches before hurting her ankle in Brisbane, but her unnecessarily long absence caught up with her at the Australian Open. She gave one of her worst performances in that loss to Makarova at the season’s first major. But competing regularly is the right recipe for Serena to put herself in a position to collect more Grand Slam championships. Venus Williams seemed exuberant in many ways after five months away from tennis with an autoimmune disease. The hope here is that she has regained her health. The women’s game could benefit immensely from having a top of the line Venus around once more in the latter stages of major tournaments. I hope that her return in Massachusetts will be the start of something more substantial for the seven time major singles champion.