By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
WORCESTER, Mass. – For one player, it was another win to remain undefeated in her Fed Cup career, and for another, it was a milestone win to remember.
And the two combined to put the U.S. Fed Cup team one win away from defeating Belarus in a World Group II tie and taking the next step to returning to the prestigious World Group for 2013.
Christina McHale, 19, played some of her best tennis in the opening match to defeat Anastasiya Yakimova, 6-0, 6-4, for the first U.S. point and her first career Fed Cup victory. Serena Williams, the 13-time Grand Slam champion, then took the court and, despite not being at her best, which is still better than most, defeated Olga Govortsova, 7-5, 6-0, to improve to 8-0 in Fed Cup play and give the U.S. the commanding 2-0 advantage.
With one more win Sunday, the U.S. will advance to a World Group Playoff in April, and a win there would return it to the World Group next year.
"I'm so excited to finally win one, and especially at a home tie. It's extra nice," McHale said of her milestone win. "To be able to help the U.S., get a point for them now in this tie, it feels really good."
Yakimova was a late substitute in the match for world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who pulled out with a lower back injury. Azarenka could still play her scheduled matches Sunday. Both teams found out Azarenka was unable to play Saturday morning, as her back, in which she first felt pain during her run to the 2012 Australian Open title, had worsened. She tried to give it a go after warming up but was unable to do so.
"It has been a while, and I have been trying to take [the injury] day by day. I had the pain since the Australian Open and was hoping to recover but did not have enough time with all the flying I did," Azarenka said as part of a statement. "Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen. It’s disappointing, but health is the most important thing."
Williams, playing her first Fed Cup match since 2007, was up 3-0 over Govortsova but let the world No. 97 back into the match, as she was not sharp with her shots, missing spots and first serves. The first set progressed to 5-all, and Serena then held for 6-5. In the next game, she broke Govortsova at love when the Belarusian double faulted to win the set.
"I definitely could have probably played better," Williams said of the first set. "It feels really good to be back (playing Fed Cup)."
She increased her level of play in the second set, although she had to battle out of trouble early in her own service games, rallying to save a break point in the opening game before finally holding and then scoring an immediate break to go up 2-0. After two deuces, she was up 3-0 when Govortsova netted a forehand, and the Belarusian handed her the next game and a break with a double fault.
From there, Williams was in control, breaking to clinch the victory when Govortsova hit a shot long. For the match, Williams had 33 unforced errors to 25 winners to just three aces, but Govortsova had eight double faults to go with 24 unforced errors and just six winners.
"I relaxed a little bit (in the second set) and started making more shots. I thought she played excellent in the first set. She played pretty well in the second set, but I didn't make as many errors," Williams said.
The ankle she injured in Brisbane a few weeks ago she said felt fine Saturday and is getting better each day.
In the opening match, McHale, the world No. 38, dominated the first set with outstanding serving to set up and take control of the points, as Yakimova struggled with her serve and errors.
She seemed to easily be on her way to the victory with a 4-0 lead in the second, but Yakimova earned her first break chances of the match down 4-1, which she converted to crawl back to 4-2, when McHale double faulted for the first time as she started to feel a little nervous.
Yakimova then held and broke McHale at love in her next service game to bring the set to 4-all, as the American struggled landing her first serves.
U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez offered her advice to McHale on the bench during the changeover at 4-3, reminding her to keep moving her feet and swinging out like she had earlier in the match when she was at her best.
And McHale continued fighting, breaking back in the next game, as Yakimova hit her eighth double fault of the match to give her a break point, which she converted when Yakimova hit a ball wide left for a 5-4 lead.
She took the ball to serve out the match but quickly fell down, 0-30. The crowd rallied behind her, and after Yakimova hit a return into the net, McHale smacked a winner down the line for 30-all to roars from the fans. She earned her first Fed Cup win and put her country ahead when Yakimova missed wide and then hit a return long.
"I was really happy with the way I started. Into the second set, as well," McHale said. "It was kind of deceiving, the scoreline, because there were a couple games where she was up 40-15, and I came back and won those. I was really happy about that. I started to feel the nerves when I had that big lead in the second. But I was happy that even though I lost a couple of games there, I stayed focused and won those two games at the end."
Fernandez was extremely pleased with the way McHale played and regrouped and knows her team needs to stay focused Sunday in order to close it out.
"I was very proud. That's one of the things Christina has been working on: closing matches. When you get nervous, being able to push through that, and she did," Fernandez said. "I was really happy that she stayed strong mentally and was able to close it out at the end.
"Even though we're up 2-Love, there's a lot of work to be done still," she added. "We'll focus on that first one and go from there."
Williams is still scheduled to play Azarenka in the opening match Sunday, and McHale is then scheduled to play Govortsova before the doubles match between world No. 1 doubles player Liezel Huber and Venus Williams against Azarenka and Govortsova.