It was a close run thing, but the United States finally secured their 18th Fed Cup championship win in Minsk, thanks to the solid play of CoCo Vandeweghe, who featured in all three winning rubbers over the weekend to deny Belarus the honour.
It came down to the wire, however, as team mate Sloane Stephens lost a tense three-setter to allow the hosts to level, after which victory depended on the fifth and final doubles rubber.
The USA, fielding Vandeweghe in place of Alison Riske, took the decisive doubles in straight but very tight sets, prompting ecstatic celebrations and the country’s name again being etched on the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas trophy.
CoCo came out and just played unbelievable, Shelby stepped up, and Sloane – my heart was broken for her, but she battled this whole weekend, she battled all the way to the end. I’m so proud of all four of them Kathy Rinaldi
Earlier in the day, Vandeweghe had seen off Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(5) 6-1 to give USA a 2-1 lead before Aliaksandra Sasnovich levelled things up with a thrilling 4-6 6-1 8-6 victory against US Open champion Stephens, who still has not won a match since her maiden Grand Slam triumph in September.
Vandeweghe gave the United States the crucial 2-1 lead over the hosts in the Fed Cup final on Sunday with a straight-sets win over teenager Sabalenka.
This season’s Australian Open and US Open semi-finalist Vandeweghe, ranked 10th in the world, fired 12 aces to win 7-6(5) 6-1 in her first ever meeting with the 19-year-old Sabalenka in one hour 18 minutes.
Her opponent played with confidence from the start on the hard-court at the packed Minsk Chizhovka 8,000-seat arena, holding serve until the 11th game when Vandeweghe broke.
Sabalenka broke back immediately under the watchful gaze of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko to force a tiebreak, which the American won to take a one-set lead after 50 minutes on court.
In the second, Sabalenka, who is 78th in the world, suddenly lost her nerve allowing Vandeweghe to break twice for a commanding 5-0 lead minutes before she took the set and the match sealing her victory with an accurate backhand.
“I knew if I just kept giving myself opportunities and getting my nose in front in her service games, I’d keep getting opportunities and she’d eventually break down,” Vandeweghe said.
“She did what she’s supposed to do and did what I expected her to do – just swing and pray for it to go in and she did. So you just got to recover and keep fighting.
“And then it showed in the second set, she withered when I kept the pressure on her, and then I just closed it out.”
The win put the USA 2-1 ahead in the final tie after, on the opening day, Vandeweghe had put the favourites into the lead with a 6-4 6-4 win over Sasnovich, and Sabalenka defeated Sloane Stephens, 6-3 3-6 6-4, to level at 1-1 overnight.
Sasnovich battled back from a set down on Sunday, however, to force the deciding fifth rubber with a victory over Stephens to draw Belarus level at 2-2.
Ranked 87th in the world, the Belarusian prevailed in two hours six minutes to chalk up her second win over Stephens.
“It was one of the most tense matches in my life,” Sasnovich said.
“I gave everything I have for the win, the god of tennis was on my side today. The support of the crowd helped me to stay concentrated throughout the game. It was a fantastic match.”
Both players produced a catalogue of unforced errors in the opener, but the 24-year-old Stephens broke her rival’s serve to to go a set up after 42 minutes.
In the second, Stephens, ranked 13th in the world, suddenly ran out of gas allowing Sasnovich to break twice to level at one set all after one hour 10 minutes on court.
In the deciding set they traded breaks twice before Sasnovich, 23, produced the deciding break in the 13th game minutes before she took the set and the match.
She ran away with the second set, her superior court craft and consistency proving too much for Belarus’ 19-year-old No 1.
Stephens’s fourth rubber encounter with Sasnovich proved to be the match of the tie, and a contender perhaps for Fed Cup match of the year.
One break was enough for Stephens in the first set, but she couldn’t press home the advantage and Sasnovich opened up a double break lead in the second, closing it out for the loss of just one game.
Stephens brushed that disappointment aside and played more solid tennis early in the decider, breaking through in the sixth game before moving just a game away from victory at 5-2 up.
Her lead evaporated, however, as Sasnovich broke back when the American served for the tie.
Two further breaks were exchanged, but eventually the Belarusian completed a memorable comeback to leave the tie finely poised at 2-2.
Vandeweghe’s substitution proved to be key in the final doubles match as she teamed up with Shelby Rogers to defeat Sabalenka and Sasnovich 6-3 7-6(3) in the thrilling deciding doubles of the final.
“It feels perfectly believable and unbelievable,” Vandeweghe said. “I’m ready for a vacation.”
It has been quite a year for the 25-year-old American, who made it through to the US Open semi-finals and is at a career-high No 10 in the world rankings since linking up with Australian Pat Cash in June.
After being dumped by her coach after the French Open, Vandeweghe appointed 1987 Wimbledon champion Cash and ‘the rest is what it is’, she told the AFP in September.
Vandeweghe proved the difference between the two teams, taking her Fed Cup record this season to six singles and two doubles wins.
“I had a great time out there,” Vandeweghe said. “I really relished in that moment of having the crowd against me and firing myself up and believing in myself.”
Vandeweghe and Rogers trailed 5-2 in the second set with their Belarus opponents serving to level the match at one-set apiece in the eighth, 10th and 12th games, but the Americans dominated the tiebreak, winning five of the last six points.
The American becomes the first player to win eight Fed Cup rubbers in a year since the current format was introduced in 2005 and is also the first player to win a maximum of six Fed Cup singles rubbers in a year since Petra Kvitova achieved the feat for Czech Republic in 2011.
“It was a lot of work and a lot of dedication to the Fed Cup, in each and every round,” Vandeweghe explained.
“To dedicate my time and energy through my season to be able to perform the best I could for Team USA.”
The outcome could well have gone the other way had Vandeweghe gone a set down to Sabalenka, as she threatened to do in the 10th game of the first set, but she saved that with a crunching forehand, before fighting her way back from 1-4 down in the tiebreak to take the lead.
Rinaldi, in her inaugural season in charge of the Americans, became the first female captain in the tournament to lead a Fed Cup team to victory since Billie Jean King for the US in 2000.
“It’s been an incredible ride thanks to these ladies,” Rinaldi said.
“We’re family and we’ve had each other’s backs. This was a very tough match.
“I’m just really thrilled for all four players.
“CoCo came out and just played unbelievable, Shelby stepped up, and Sloane – my heart was broken for her, but she battled this whole weekend, she battled all the way to the end. I’m so proud of all four of them.”
No doubt Eduard Dubrou, the Belarus Captain, was proud of his team too, knowing they could not have given any more in Fed Cup this year, and making their first appearance in a Fed Cup final.
“We are really satisfied we gained this result,” Belarus Captain Eduard Dubrou added as the Americans celebrated.
Both Sabalenka and Sasnovich saw off higher-ranked opposition several times in their march to the final but neither could find a way to outsmart Vandeweghe, whose 2017 Fed Cup season is now among the best in history.