Minsk | Fed Cup Final evenly poised

The United States may well be hoping to end its longest Fed Cup title drought but they are being made to fight for the trophy by their hosts, Belarus, who are missing former World No 1 and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in this weekend’s final.

While World No 10, CoCo Vandeweghe scored the first rubber, US Open champion Sloane Stephens fell in three tight sets to Belarus’ top available player, Aryna Sabalenka, who is 78th in the world, leaving the tie evenly poised at one rubber apiece overnight.

It’s the Final, it’s home, you play against America, they’ve won it 17 times, so that’s why emotions come more. I didn’t feel it before. Aryna Sabalenka

The 17-time champions USA claimed their last title in 2000 and have lost three finals since, to France in 2003 and Italy in 2009 and 2010.

The US team is made up of World No 10 Vandeweghe, Stephens, ranked 13, Shelby Rogers and Alison Riske, and they are missing the Williams sisters, who have not played in the Fed Cup this season.

All the members of American team are ranked higher than the Belarusians, and captain Kathy Rinaldi believes in her team’s prospects in the final.

“We’ve selected the players who have been playing for the team this year and were instrumental in getting the team to the Fed Cup final,” she told Wednesday’s news conference.

“This is my A-team, I believe in its strength and the work that we have done to get this far.

“The players really care for each other, so we are very excited and ready to go.

“We respect Belarus, they have a strong, talented team which have had a great year and reached the final.”

The USA had won their only previous Fed Cup encounter with Belarus, whitewashing the former Soviet republic 5-0 in the World Group II opening-round tie in February, 2012.

Vandeweghe led the charge on Saturday, opening proceedings against Belarus’ Aliaksandra Sasnovich and notching up a convincing 6-4 6-4 win to give the visitors the lead in their first Fed Cup final since 2010 in one hour 27 minutes in her first ever meeting with the 23-year-old.

“That’s my job, I’m top-ranked player in our team,” Vandeweghe said on court after the match. “And you can see the result on the scoreboard.

“I started perfect both sets with early breaks but it wasn’t easy to close out on both occasions as Aliaksandra was very motivated and played really well today.”

Vandeweghe, this season’s Australian Open and US Open semi-finalist, maintained her perfect singles record in Fed Cup this year and simultaneously ended Sasnovich’s, with both women having started the tie with 4-0 win-loss records in Fed Cup singles in 2017.

She looked in command from the start on the hard court in the packed Minsk Chizhovka 8,000-seat arena, peppering her opponent with shots from the baseline.

The 25-year-old American started the rubber with an immediate break clinching a 2-0 lead, which she confidently kept to take the opening set in 45 minutes.

The players traded breaks early in the second set but Vandeweghe, playing with slightly more accuracy, went 3-1 up.

Sasnovich, ranked 87th in the world, fought back and pulled the scores level at 4-4, but the American responded by breaking again in the ninth game and then held her serve to win the set and the match.

Belarus are battling their maiden Fed Cup final without Azarenka because of an ongoing custody battle over her baby son.

Azarenka was forced to skip the US Open in August after a Los Angeles judge ruled that 10-month old Leo could not leave California until the case had been settled.

“It is heart-breaking for me to not have a chance to play and help Belarus in the final but unfortunately, my current custody situation is keeping me in California,” the 28-year-old said in a statement posted on her Twitter account.

“Even though I will not be in Minsk for the final my heart is always with my country and my team and I will cheer for them from afar.”

Going into the final, however, Belarus team skipper Eduard Dubrov said he believed that both teams had even chance of winning the title.

“One can consider us to be the final favourites. I have nothing against it but we don’t even think about it,” he said.

“We just come onto the court and play. For me it’s really hard to guess which team have the better chance to win.”

The match between Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka and Sloane Stephens of USA, continuing Saturday’s schedule, might just be enough to prove him right.

Sabalenka is the Belarusian 19-year-old No 1, and she put in the performance of her life to defeat Stephens in three sets and leave the Fed Cup Final in Minsk finely poised at 1-1 going into day two.

Her 6-3 3-6 6-4 victory kept the hosts in the running and the impact on the teenager, who sank to her knees in tears after Stephens netted on the Belarusian’s fourth match point, was evident.

“I’ve never felt so much emotion in a match,” Sabalenka said afterwards.

“When you play at home and you are down 0-1 and you have to win and you fight with yourself.

“My game was not so good. I was fighting with myself and finally I did it. I just started crying because it was such an important match.”

In a match of contrasting styles, with Stephens hitting the ball with spin and depth off both wings with few mistakes, and Sabalenka effectively walloping everything in range which either works, or doesn’t.

A fast start for the Belarusian got the home crowd fired up after the disappointment of the first rubber, and she held off a fightback from Stephens to close out the opener.

Her backhand then betrayed her in the second, and the American was able to break early to level shortly thereafter.

The decider began with six straight breaks and neither player able to establish a rhythm.

A hold for Sabalenka in the ninth game forced Stephens to serve to stay in the match, and after bravely saving three match points, the American could not direct a pummelled return back into play.

“I thought she played a really good match. I competed as hard as I could and I fought as hard as I could and that’s all I could really ask for,” Stephens said.

“Just come back tomorrow and do it all over again. Today is today and put it behind us.”

The captains may still make changes to their nominations, but the tie will definitely at least go to a fourth rubber, for which Sasnovich and Stephens are currently set to play.

If it remains level by that point, the Fed Cup Final will be decided by the doubles rubber for the third straight year.

Whatever happens on Sunday, it is likely to be an occasion full of emotion as either Belarus win their first Fed Cup title or the Americans end a title-drought of 17 years.

“It’s the Final, it’s home, you play against America, they’ve won it 17 times, so that’s why emotions come more,” Sabalenka said in her post-match interview. “I didn’t feel it before.”

You can be sure that all the players feel it now.




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