The fact remains that there is much work to be done by the leading players from this country as they strive to bring their nation back into the top tier of the Fed Cup World Group for 2016. Over this past weekend, however, the Americans took a significant step in that direction by ousting Argentina 4-1 at Buenos Aires in a relegation contest. With that triumph, the U.S. moves into a playoff round that could carry them back into contention for the prestigious international team title next year. It would not surprise me in the least if the Americans find themselves right in the thick of the worldwide battle for team supremacy in 2016, and that is good news for fans fully aware that the last time the U.S. captured the Fed Cup was in 2000.
Opening the proceedings for the Americans against Argentina on the red clay last weekend was Venus Williams, who cast aside world No. 121 Paula Ormaechea 6-3, 6-2. At 34, Williams is reinvigorated as a competitor, seemingly more energetic than she has been in a long while, confident that she can get the job done nearly every time she steps on the court, and buoyed by a stellar 2014 campaign that included a tournament win in Dubai and two final round appearances at other events. Williams came into this Fed Cup duel knowing she was ranked No. 11 in the world, but believing she is decidedly better than that.
Ormaechea is what the British might call a ?useful player?. At the French Open last year, she advanced to the third round, but then was rudely brought back to reality by Maria Sharapova. Ormaechea suffered a bruising 6-0, 6-0 defeat against the eventual Roland Garros champion, who collected a second crown on the premier stage of the clay court game. Williams commenced her battle with Ormaechea almost haphazardly, losing her serve in the opening game before breaking back. The seven-time major singles champion was broken again in the third game when she sent a forehand approach shot long.
Down a break at 2-1, Williams went to work comprehensively, climbing back swiftly to 2-2, holding at 15 with an ace for 3-2, securing the next two games, sweepingly asserting her authority. Ormaechea managed to hold in the eighth game, but Williams served out the set in full command, opening the ninth game with an ace, closing it with a superb swing volley that could not be countered. The set had gone to the American, 6-3, and it lasted only 35 minutes.
Ormaechea realized she simply could not contain Williams. Venus was overpowering and overwhelming from the backcourt, dictating at will, rendering her adversary almost helpless. Ormaechea double faulted at 30-40 in the opening game of the second set. Williams dropped only one point in the next two games, and soon moved to 5-0. Ormaechea obstinately kept herself alive, breaking Williams at love, holding her own serve in the following game. But Williams closed out the account by holding at 5-2, underlining her superiority in the process. Williams put the U.S. out in front 1-0 with her straight set triumph.
Serena Williams followed in the second match of the tie against the left-handed Maria Irigoyen, a player ranked No. 197 in the world. Yet the heavily favored American was clearly struggling with the cold that had given her cause for concern during her recent Australian Open title run. She coughed frequently in the early stages of this Fed Cup meeting, and her timing off the ground left a lot to be desired. A discombobulated Serena dropped the first seven points of the contest, falling behind 0-1, 0-40 after a cluster of glaring mistakes. She steadied herself and held on for 1-1, but the set turned into a tough test for the American. She had no rhythm off the ground, and her return of serve was not there when she needed it.
Serving at 4-5 to stay in the set, Williams summoned all of her strength and stopped giving points away needlessly. She held at love for 5-5, broke at 15, and then held at 15 to close out the set 7-5. Williams had won 12 of 14 points over those last three games. She never looked back, closing out the battle on a run of nine consecutive games. In the second set, Williams sharply elevated her game and took 20 of 24 points as Irigoyen collapsed under the weight of her opponent?s unrelenting game. Victory went to the American 7-5, 6-0. The U.S. had taken a commanding 2-0 lead.
Williams had seemed to recover some of her vitality during that match, but the next day she was not feeling well enough to compete again in the opening singles match. CoCo Vandeweghe was installed in the lineup by Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, replacing the ailing Serena Williams. Vandeweghe is a formidable fast court player. She has one of the better serves in the women?s game, an explosive ground game, and a keen understanding of how to finish off points unhesitatingly on quick courts. But on the red clay in Buenos Aires, she was somewhat out of her element. It was an arduous assignment for the 6?1?, 23-year-old-American.
She did her best, but it was not good enough to overcome Ormaechea. The American?s return of serve was a liability in this match, as was her two-handed backhand during the baseline exchanges. She did some good work off the forehand and served well sporadically, but the conditions worked largely in her opponent?s favor. The two players exchanged service breaks in the fifth and sixth games, but then Vandeweghe was broken again in the seventh game, making a costly unforced error off the backhand on break point against her. Ormaechea took that set 6-4, with Vandeweghe connecting on only 39% of her first serves. Ormaechea broke twice to move out in front 3-0 in the second set. Vandeweghe did not surrender, capturing two games in a row to close the gap to 3-2.
But Ormaechea still had the upper hand in shaping the outcome of the contest. She did not lose serve again, and profited from the instability of the American?s play from the baseline. Ormaechea kept Argentina alive, winning 6-4, 6-4 to the delight of an appreciative and effusive audience. The U.S. lead had been cut to 2-1.
And yet, waiting in the wings was Venus Williams, and Irigoyen never really had a chance. Williams started this match with some apprehension, losing her serve in the opening game. But she settled down quickly, sweeping 16 of 18 points to reach 4-1. Irigoyen put up a good fight in the sixth game but was broken again, and Williams promptly held at love to close out the set 6-1. Venus bolted to 2-0 in the second set before Irigoyen ended an eight game losing streak, rallying for 2-2. But, serving at 30-40 in the fifth game, the woman from Argentina faltered, double faulting at break point. Williams was ascendant once more. She was unstoppable on serve the rest of the way, and gained a well-deserved and comfortable 6-1, 6-4 victory to seal the win for the United States. Taylor Townsend then joined Vandeweghe for a 6-2, 6-3 win over Tatiana Bua and Nadia Podoroska, and so the Americans prevailed 4-1 over Argentina.
Both Williams sisters deserve plaudits just for showing up. Serena secured her 19th Grand Slam title the previous weekend, and yet she still made the journey to Buenos Aires and contributed an opening day win before stepping aside. Venus also had gone deep into the Australian Open draw, losing to Keys in the quarterfinals. But the renowned sisters honorably stepped up and kept their Fed Cup commitments. Maria Sharapova played for Russia in the first round of the World Group, and she accounted for both Urszula and Agnieszka Radwanska to lead her country past Poland. She, too, must be applauded for her willingness to compete so soon after a hard fought yet saddening final round loss to Serena Williams at the Australian Open.
I wish the scheduling for Fed Cup could be different. Asking the leading players to put themselves on the line for their countries right after a major is unreasonable. They need time to recharge their competitive batteries if they are going to play with the supreme physical and emotional spirit required on all important occasions. But Serena, Venus and Maria dealt honorably with their difficult circumstances, performing with striking professionalism. Perhaps Sharapova will lead Russia to a Fed Cup team victory in 2015. Meanwhile, look out for the U.S. as they fight to reassert themselves in the 2016 Fed Cup World Group. There is a growing sense among the cognoscenti of tennis that the American women?s game is heading straight into the heart of a bold and rewarding era.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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