Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka at the official draw ceremony.
© Jared Gruenwald
Christina McHale and Victoria Azarenka will play the first match.
© Jared Gruenwald
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
WORCESTER, Mass. – As Friday’s official draw ceremony for the U.S. vs. Belarus Fed Cup World Group II approached, there was not much doubt as to who would be the No. 1 singles players for each squad, with Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka both competing for their countries.
The bigger question for U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez was whether seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams was ready to play singles for the first time since withdrawing from the 2011 US Open or whether to pick rising American star Christina McHale, ranked a career-high No. 38, as the No. 2 singles player.
She went with the hot hand in McHale, 19, who is coming off a third-round appearance at the Australian Open, where she upset No. 24 Lucie Safarova, and a past season in which she beat, amongst others, then-world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Marion Bartoli (at the US Open).
McHale was then drawn to play the opening match of the tie against Azarenka, the world No. 1 and 2012 Australian Open champion, with Serena facing Belarus’ No. 2 Olga Govortsova in the second singles match Saturday. On Sunday, Serena and Azarenka will play first, followed by McHale and Govortsova and then the doubles rubber featuring Venus and doubles world No. 1 Liezel Huber against Azarenka and Govortsova.
The winner of the tie next competes in a World Group Playoff in April for a promotion to the World Group in 2013 with a victory.
Fernandez has been pleased with her entire team’s work in practice, as Serena’s ankle she injured in Brisbane last month is steadily improving and Venus, who has been battling Sjogren’s Syndrome, is returning to form. But with Venus’ lack of match play over the last few months, it tipped the scales in favor of McHale for singles, for Saturday at least.
Captains have the option of changing the players for the third singles match an hour before the start of play Sunday, changing players for the fourth singles match 10 minutes after the third match ends, and changing the doubles lineup 15 minutes after the fourth singles match concludes.
"Christina is very match-fit. She had a great Australian Open and is very prepared and ready to play, " Fernandez said. "Venus has had a great week of practice, as well, but I think Christina has been playing a lot more, and Venus has not played really since the US Open. I need her fresh for Sunday, and Christina is ready for the challenge."
McHale and Azarenka have only played once in their careers, and McHale was fine with playing first or second Saturday after getting the news from Fernandez that she would be playing.
"I think either way is fine. I have to be ready either way. I am looking forward to it; it is going to be a good match," she said. "So I just have to try and be as ready as I can."
Belarusian Fed Cup Captain Tatiana Poutchek tabbed Govortsova as her No. 2 player instead of the higher-ranked Anastasia Yakimova, with the indoor hardcourt suiting Govortsova’s game better.
Serena and Govortsova, ranked No. 97, have played just once back in 2008 at the Olympics, but the 13-time Grand Slam champion has faced Azarenka seven times with a commanding 6-1 advantage. And she expects another good battle, with this one being the first one with them both as major champions.
"I don’t think it will be any different. She is still the great player she has been in the past," Serena said of facing Azarenka. "The same with me. We're just here to do the best for our country.
"I've played her (Govortsova) before as well," she added of her match Saturday. "She's actually a really good player. She has a solid ranking, and so same thing: Just play for my country, and do the best I can."
Azarenka just arrived in Worcester Thursday, after spending a few days in Los Angeles after returning from Australia, where she appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and watched Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers play one night, amongst other activities.
She is focusing on her match against McHale Saturday, knowing she will need to play her best, before thinking about singles against Serena or doubles Sunday.
"I think she is a very good player, has a lot of motivation playing in front of a home crowd," Azarenka said of McHale. "She has some great results, played some good matches against top players and had a few big wins, so she is a dangerous opponent."