By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
KHARKIV, Ukraine – After being relegated to World Group II for 2012, the U.S. Fed Cup Team proved that it belongs in the top level of competition this year, and in convincing fashion.
After a 5-0 sweep over Belarus in a World Group II tie in February, the U.S. replicated the feat again against Ukraine, winning 5-0 on the road on outdoor red clay in a World Group Playoff to achieve its goal of moving back into the prestigious Fed Cup World Group for 2013 and have a chance to compete for the Fed Cup title.
On the second day of the playoff against Ukraine, Serena Williams defeated Lesia Tsurenko, 6-3, 6-2, to clinch the tie and remain unbeaten in her Fed Cup career. Christina McHale then defeated Elina Svitolina, 7-5, 6-3, in a dead fourth singles rubber to give both Williams and McHale two points each for the weekend in the best-of-five-match series.
World No. 1 doubles player Liezel Huber and Sloane Stephens, playing in her first career Fed Cup match, then defeated Nadiya and Lyudmyla Kichenok in the doubles rubber, 6-4, 6-1, to complete the sweep.
Williams defeated Svitolina, and McHale beat Tsurenko on Day 1 to give the U.S. a commanding 2-0 lead heading into the last day of play.
The U.S. moved down to the World Group II for the first time in its history after falling in the quarterfinals and then a World Group Playoff in 2011, but especially thanks to Williams and McHale, who also had two wins each in the victory over Belarus, it turned out to be a short visit.
With 17 titles, the U.S. is the most successful nation in Fed Cup history and regains its spot in the World Group next year in what will be the 50th anniversary of Fed Cup competition.
"We are so excited," said U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez. "(Returning to the World Group) was our goal this year. It was our first time out of the World Group, and we couldn’t wait to get back. We did a great job of really focusing and getting the job done, so we are thrilled to be back."
Williams was glad she was able to come through for her country and close out the tie.
"I feel really good about it," Williams, now 11-0 in her Fed Cup career, said of clinching. "Now we are back in the World Group where we wanted to be, and it feels really good to get two points."
McHale, the world No. 36, echoed her sentiments and added she could not be happier with how the year went for Team USA.
"I am really happy with how this week went practice-wise and how the matches went. We have a lot of fun, the whole team does. It has been a great week here," she said. "That was our goal – to get back into the World Group. We are all really excited about that. We have had really good ties this year. I am really pleased with how they went."
In her match Sunday, Williams overcame a slow start, after being forced to save a break point in her opening service game and serving an uncharacteristic five double faults, but she never trailed in the match.
She took her first lead in the opening set with a break to go up 3-2 with a powerful return that Tsurenko, the world No. 110, was unable to handle. Tsurenko fought back in the next game, however, earning two break-point chances as the game went to deuce eight times, but Williams fought them all off in a back-and-forth game that featured eight double faults and three aces from Williams, including one to finally win the game to a big yell of "Come on!"
Williams ended the first set with another break and began the second set serving much more consistently. She served for the match at 5-1 but allowed herself to be broken for the first time when Tsurenko hit a return winner. But Williams regrouped to end the match and put the U.S. back in the World Group with a break at love in the following game, smacking a backhand-return winner down the line on the final point.
She was not sure what to expect coming to Ukraine but was glad she made the trip with her teammates to compete for her country. Williams also discovered she has fans everywhere, as the autograph and picture requests kept piling up after each match.
"I absolutely love this team," she said. "I love Liezel. She is just so amazing and so perfect. Christina is awesome, as well, and Sloane and I get along like two peas in a pod. Mary Joe is a young coach. She hasn’t been off tour for too long, so she has so much experience. It is a fabulous opportunity for me. I absolutely love it."
The win closes the 2012 Fed Cup season for the U.S., and for Fernandez, defeating both Belarus and Ukraine in sweeps was just gravy.
"We really take every match individually and attack one match at a time. Everyone starting in Worcester (against Belarus) did a fantastic job, and as captain, I am just really proud of the way they competed," Fernandez said. "They were very focused, and that is not always easy when you are away. They did a great job from start to finish. It was a bonus that we didn’t lose a match this year."