Alison Riske makes history; U.S. leads Ukraine after Day 1 of Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — When you set records in a tennis match, winning is the cherry on top. Triumphing in the second-longest tiebreak in Billie Jean King Cup history, and longest in singles, Alison Riske helped the U.S. open up a 2-0 lead over Ukraine at the close of the first day of play in the 2022 Qualifier.
Riske and Dayana Yastremska played the first 12 games of Friday's opening match at the Harrah's Cherokee Center in 58 minutes, but it was the next 30 that was the most compelling. In all, Riske saved four set points and needed eight of her own to wrap up the tiebreak, 18-16, and take a one-set lead. The 34-point affair comes second only to a 40-point tiebreak between doubles teams from India and Uzbekistan in 2004 in the competition's annals, and is a new mark for a singles match the event's 59-year history.
"Honestly, I don't even know what happened. It was so bizarre and amazing at the same time," Riske told reporters with a laugh post-match. "I felt like every time I got a set point, she would come up with something, a great serve or a great return ... I had a couple of second serves throughout that time that I was a little nervous on and didn't quite execute, so those were unfortunate.
"I was just really proud that I was able to keep my head in there and overcome that. There's a lot of emotions going on. I want to win for my team. I want to win for my country. I'm honestly just very proud that I was able to do that today."
In all, Riske needed 2 hours and 20 minutes to come away with an eventual 7-6, 7-5 victory after losing a 5-1 lead in the second set.
"I think I played a pretty clean second set to get me to 5-1. I felt my energy drop there a little bit. It gave her a little bit of momentum. She started swinging a little bit more freely, then it was very complicated," Riske continued.
"I'm just happy that, again, I was able to have my wits about me and get through it."
U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi added: "I [was] basically playing every single point with Ali. I just try to stay calm on the sidelines because I think that helps the players the most. Everybody is different. Just basically knowing what to give, when to give energy, when to kind of maybe sit back a little bit. Ali was absolutely incredible. Obviously, so much [was] on the line. These matches mean so much to all these girls. You could see the nerves on both sides of the court. She fought through it. She played incredible. I kept telling Ali, 'We've got your back.' She gets that win and it allows Jess to go out there and play freely."
In the second singles match, U.S. No. 1 Jessica Pegula was a 6-2, 6-1 winner over Ukraine's No. 2 player Katarina Zavatska, giving the Americans a firm advantage in a tie where the first team to earn three victories secures a spot in November's Billie Jean King Cup Finals. They'll need just one win overall tomorrow, where Pegula will face Yastremska and Riske will face Zavatska, barring any changes in nominations from the two captains. Should Ukraine win both of those matches, the tie will come down to a fifth match, and be decided in doubles.
Pegula, playing her second-ever Billie Jean King Cup match and first live rubber, never trailed in 64 minutes. The top-ranked player in the tie played like it: Pegula hit 16 winners, 15 more than Zavatska, and broke serve five times, but admitted that she needed to "refocus" after supporting Riske through her epic.
"I was seeing the ball well. I felt really good out there. I mean, there wasn't much to it. I think I was just trying to play my game and trying to be aggressive as much as I could, not lose focus throughout the entire match," Pegula said. "A little nerve-wracking being my first real match, I thought I held up pretty well."
The two teams played Friday's match in great spirit, with the home crowd inside Harrah's Cherokee Center earnestly supporting both teams. With 1,900 Ukrainians among the local population in this county, that duality was certainly noticed by the competitors.
"I could feel the support from both sides. [For] the players and the team, Ukraine have been in our thoughts and our prayers and in our hearts, but we respect the competition as well. Once we're out there, we're opponents on the court, but we're friends and allies off the court. That's what it felt like," Rinaldi said. "It felt like the players really left it out there today on both sides. That's all you can really ask for. I thought the fans were really incredible for both teams."
"It was really nice to see the Ukrainians here. A lot of people are from here. They were supporting us," Yastremska added. "I think for the crowd it was also pretty hard because they have to support [their] players but same time they wanted to support us. Even when they were supporting a lot the Americans, I wasn't really angry or something because I can understand them. It was a nice atmosphere, one to remember.
"I don't think wins here now [are] the most important thing. I think the most important is that we are here representing our country and we are fighting for those matches."
The USTA is donating 10% of the gate revenue from the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier towards the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund by Global Giving, supporting humanitarian relief on the ground during the war in Ukraine, through the Tennis Plays for Peace Initiative. Join our collective effort in providing financial support for Ukraine by donating now at tennisplaysforpeace.com.
All photos: Mike Lawrence/USTA