US beats Belarus 5-0 to advance to Fed Cup playoff
WORCESTER, Mass. – After hitting her first competitive serve in five months just long, Venus Williams relaxed, recoiled and fired off another that was too much for Anastasiya Yakimova.
Williams' comeback was off to a good start that just got better as she teamed with Liezel Huber for a 6-1, 6-2 doubles victory over Yakimova and Darya Kustova that capped a 5-0 Fed Cup shutout for the United States against Belarus on Sunday.
"It was perfect conditions," Williams said.
Williams' U.S. teammates, including younger sister Serena, had already secured the victory and swept through four rounds of singles, relieving any pressure Venus Williams may have felt in her first match since she withdrew after the opening round of the U.S. Open because of an autoimmune disease.
The fatigue and joint pain of Sjogren's Syndrome weren't an issue on Sunday for Williams, who was welcomed onto the court by thousands of cheering fans that stuck around to see her return hours after the Americans had already clinched a victory.
Williams said she felt great and hopes to ride her comeback all the way to the Olympics. She's not sure yet when she'll be up for singles competition, but Sunday certainly felt like she was headed in the right direction.
"I'm not sure what my plans are," she said. "For me it's kind of week-by-week and just see what happens. I try not to put pressure on myself."
By blanking Belarus in World Group II, the Americans head to a playoff in April in hopes of playing their way back into the top tier of the Fed Cup, which they were bounced from last year.
"You don't want to be in this group any extra time," U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez said. "It was big to win this one and now we have another task in front of us."
Serena Williams had already guaranteed a U.S. victory earlier in the day by defeating Yakimova 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. Serena blew a 4-1 lead in the opening set and slammed her racket on the court after one point, then returned to form in the next two sets. She didn't allow a point in two straight games of the final set, which she closed with an overhead slam.
"That just goes to show you how frustrated I was out there today," she said. "I haven't done that in a match in a long time."
Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, the Australian Open champion, sat out all five matches with a back injury.
"I think it's unfortunate that Victoria Azarenka, our No. 1, couldn't play," Belarus captain Tatiana Poutchek said. "The injury is pretty serious and we didn't want to risk putting her on the court. There was no chance today."
Venus Williams' win almost overshadowed the team victory, which the U.S. players celebrated with a quick parade around the court with the American flag after Serena Williams' win.
Once Christian McHale cruised through Kustova 6-0, 6-1 in the next match, the only pressure on Venus Williams was to help Huber preserve the shutout.
"It felt great," Williams said. "It was everything I expected. I'm really glad the team got to the 4-love lead."
In the first round of World Group play, Russia beat visiting Spain 3-2; Serbia won 3-2 at Belgium; Italy downed visiting Ukraine 3-2; and the Czech Republic won 4-1 at Germany.
Although a U.S. victory was assured after the first singles, most of the 2,279 fans at Worcester's DCU Center stuck around through another round of singles to see Venus play. It was barely two hours before Super Bowl kickoff and for those fans, Venus' comeback trumped seeing the start of the New England Patriots' game against the New York Giants.
Fans crowded the entrance to snap photos as she strolled onto the court. One fan shouted, "Welcome back, Venus!" after warmups. That was followed by a loud round of applause and some foot-stomping when she and Huber returned from the bench to open the match.
Williams served first and after hitting her first attempt long, she delivered a winner on her second to start her comeback with a 15-0 lead. Williams faltered briefly the next time she served, falling behind love-40 before rallying with Huber to win the next four points and clinching the game with an ace.
Belarus won the first two games of the second set, but Williams and Huber reeled off six straight games, ending it with Williams holding serve.