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By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
It has been almost five months since Serena and Venus Williams both took the court to play in the same competition but that streak could end next weekend as both have committed to play for the U.S. Fed Cup Team.
Injuries and illness sidelined both sisters for much of 2011. Serena with a blood clot and hematoma, results of complications from a foot injury in 2010, and Venus with a hip injury and then a diagnosis of Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease, which affects energy level. The illness caused her to withdraw prior to her second-round match at the 2011 US Open, and she has not taken the court since.
To add injury to, well, injury, Serena then badly twisted her ankle in Brisbane prior to the start of the 2012 Australian Open. But being a five-time champion in Melbourne she competed in the year’s first Grand Slam before suffering a fourth-round upset to Russian Ekaterina Makarova.
While neither is 100 percent, the Williams sisters remain two of the most dangerous opponents on the WTA Tour. For that reason, U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez named them to the U.S. team along with rising American star Christina McHale and doubles world No. 1 Liezel Huber for its World Group II tie against Belarus and new Australian Open champ and world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka February 4-5 in Worcester, Mass., on an indoor hard court. Another rising American star, Sloane Stephens, will also travel and practice with the U.S. team.
With the tour’s hottest player in Azarenka leading the way, Belarus will be no easy assignment for the U.S. whether Serena or Venus play or not. But defeating Belarus is the first step the U.S team needs to take if it wants to return to the prestigious Fed Cup World Group and earn a chance to compete for the Fed Cup title in 2013. To regain its spot next year, the U.S. must defeat Belarus and then one of the World Group quarterfinal losers in a playoff in April. This is the first time in U.S. Fed Cup Team history that it has not been a member of the World Group.
In announcing her team last week, Fernandez said she had spoken with Serena and Venus about the status of their injuries and availability, and they confirmed they were good to go. Regardless, Fernandez will watch the two, along with McHale, Stephens and Huber, in practice this week before deciding on her lineup for the tie, which will be announced at the official draw ceremony Friday.
With Venus not having had any match play since last September, she is a bigger question mark than Serena, especially having to face the red-hot Azarenka.
"She says she ready but I want to see it," Fernandez said of Venus. "I want to see how she is practicing, but I want to see her play practice sets with Christina and Sloane and everybody and see what I see. But if she's good, there is a pretty good chance [she'll play singles]. But we have options. Maybe she plays the first day and doesn't play the second day, or maybe she just plays the doubles. Knowing she can play is a big intimidation factor."
This will be the first appearance on the U.S. Fed Cup Team for both Williams sisters since 2007 and the first time they will be playing for Fernandez, although Venus did travel and practice with the team last year during its World Group Playoff loss to Germany.
Serena has dominated Azarenka in their careers with a 6-1 head-to-head advantage that includes defeating her in the third round of the 2011 US Open in straight sets and also beating her in Toronto last summer, also in straight sets. Venus has not played Azarenka since 2010, as the seven-time Grand Slam champion played in just four tournaments in 2011.
McHale, 19, has arguably the most momentum on the U.S. team, having advanced to the third round of the 2012 Australian Open and reaching a career-high of No. 38 in the world this week, making her the youngest player in the top 50. If Serena or Venus is unable to compete in singles, McHale could easily step in. She has played Azarenka just once in her young career back in 2010, which was a victory for the American on clay.
Last year she posted victories over top 10 players Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli (at the 2011 US Open) as well as over two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Stephens, ranked a career-high No. 86, is listed as a practice partner, but it is possible her name could be called as well. The effervescent 18-year-old was the youngest player in the top 100 at the end of 2011 and posted a third round showing at the US Open in just her second career Grand Slam main draw. In Melbourne, she reached the second round before falling to Kuznetsova in two close sets.
With Azarenka as Belarus’ No. 1 player, the No. 2 spot will likely go to Anastasia Yakimova, who is ranked (No. 63) in the world. Neither Serena nor Venus has ever played her, and she has not played McHale since 2009. Olga Govortsova, world No. 114, and Darya Kustova round out the Belarusian squad.
Should the tie come down to the final doubles rubber, if both sisters are healthy, it is likely Fernandez would tap them as her team. If one is unable to play, Huber is there and used to playing in the clutch, having won six of her eight career matches for the U.S. Fed Cup team, including tie-clinching semifinal matches in both 2009 and 2010.
Either way, Fernandez will ultimately choose the lineup she believes gives her team the best chance to win and return to the World Group for 2013.
"Each tie is big no matter what round it is," she said. "We take it one match at a time and try to get through it. The focus is just on winning that first match and getting three matches with a ‘W’ so we can move on to the second round in April. We have to win both ties to get back into the World Group. Not an easy task, but we're up for the challenge and motivated, which is the key."