by Pete Bodo
It's only a World Group II, Round 1 match-up (who among you even knows exactly what that means?). It pits the U.S., the most successful team in Fed Cup history, against a Russian satellite republic, Belarus, and if you can name the four nations that border Belarus you win a shiny red Soviet-era tractor!
The tie will take place, starting tomorrow, on indoor hard courts at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass. If you can tell the nickname of the minor-league hockey team that calls Worcester home, you win a shiny green 1950s-era John Deere tractor!
As such things go, it's a seemingly innocuous tie. So why does it suddenly feel something like an Alamo moment?
Because the U.S. is led by the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Both of them are over 30. Both of them are banged up, and have been, off and on, for a while. Venus, who's closing on 32, has played exactly a dozen matches since the beginning of the year, which wouldn't be so bad if the year in question would be 2012, not 2011. She hasn't won a tournament since she put up back-to-back wins in Dubai and Acapulco almost two full years ago. And she's still in the process of overcoming and managing the effects of the auto-immune disease that wrecked her hopes last year, Sjogren's Syndrome.
Serena is in better shape, but not by all that much. Coming off a 2011 during which she played just two dozen matches (but won titles at Stanford and Toronto), she injured an ankle in Brisbane early this year and pulled out of her third-round match before she hit a ball. At the Australian Open, she was rudely pushed around and hit off the court in the fourth round by the No. 56 player in the world, Ekaterina Makarova.
The facts suggest that the U.S. is up against it, and would be against almost any nation that has a couple of decent top 10 or 20-type players. But Belarus pulled into Worcester, home of the AHL hockey Sharks, with a newly minted Grand Slam champion, Victoria Azarenka. The 22-year old killed two birds with one stone last week in Melbourne, winning her first major and taking over the No. 1 ranking held in the past by both Williams sisters.
For over a year now, one of the main themes in WTA tennnis has been, how much longer can the Williams sisters go on? If you like to interpret or mull over the symbolic value of events, a Fed Cup win by Belarus in Worcester might strike you as a painful and poignant testament to the fact that the era of U.S. domination in women's tennis is over. Did I say era? You could say it's the end of tennis history as we know it, for the the U.S. has been the dominant force in tennis since the get-go. In fact, you could make the case that women's tennis as we know it today is a U.S. invention (thank-you, Billie Jean).
Can Armageddon be forestalled, one more time, while U.S. fans and tennis honchos wait for Christina McHale, Taylor Townsend, Sloane Stephens and other promising youngsters to get good, quick? It's an interesting question, and whether or not Venus is selected to play will have a bearing on how it's answered. If she remains on the bench the Alamo narrative will lose some of its edge. But she certainly seems ready to go:
"It's huge to have Venus on the team," U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez said the other day in Worcester, "Just to have her around is a big motivator for the rest of your team. It's a big excitement. She was itching to get out there to hit that first ball. I think that goes such a long way. The attitude, everybody seeing it, seeing the desire, the determination, the intensity, it rubs off. It's great to see Venus out there this morning hitting well, working hard. For me it's a big treat and honor to have her on this team."
Serena, by contrast, was sounding — and being spoken of — less like a potential mascot than a truculent combatant, ready to lace 'em up. When she was asked in the pre-draw press conference how, having been No. 1 for so long, it might feel to be playing a No. 1, her reply was stony:
"Yeah, I feel fine," she said. "I played a lot of No. 1's. It doesn't change anything."
This is encouraging, at least for U.S. fans. Beware Serena when her nose is out of joint.
As for the ankle, she added: "The ankle is better. Every day it's feeling better. It's not a hundred percent. But it's better than it was last week and two weeks ago."
Whomever Fernandez sends out there ("It's sort of a last-minute decision," she said. "We'll see how everybody is playing.") is guaranteed to have her hands full with the No. 1 player for Belarus. Azarenka may be tired from all the hoopla surrounding and following here great win Down Under, but she isn't taking this tie lightly. "I'm a patriot of my country," she declared during her presser. "I think it's important for all the athletes to participate and play for your country."
Given the energy level Azarenka typically brings to the fray, it's not inconceivable that she would play in all three matches for Belarus. The key singles match up is the third rubber, in which the team's respective No. 1s (Serena Williams and Azarenka) battle it out to open the second and final day of play.
Azarenka vs. Serena Williams is a given; the real question is, who will play No. 2 for the U.S.? My guess is that Venus is in Worcester mainly to play doubles, if at all — can you imagine the captain asking Venus to play her first competitive singles match in five months against the new world No. 1? And Fernandez has a terrific No. 2 option in McHale. The stars appear to be lining up nicely for the precociously poised, gritty 19-year old.
McHale is already ranked No. 38 and she recently upset Lucie Safarova, the No. 24 seed, in Australia. She won another match there as well (against gifted hard-luck story, Marina Erakovic), before she lost to former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic. You would have to like McHale over either No. 65 Anastasiya Yakimova (she hasn't won a match this year in three events) or no. 97 Olga Govortsova, who's won just two.
Despite the volume of distractions and the general fatigue factor, Azarenka can be expected to go all-out. Her three countrywomen have only lost two doubles matches (19-2) between them, but have rarely faced anyone, in any alignment, comparable to the team of Venus and Serena Williams — or the No. 1 ranked doubles player Liezel Huber and anyone.
This one may come down to the doubles, unless Serena Williams can win her two singles and McHale (or Venus) comes up with a win in the battle of the No. 2s. It would be nice to see Armageddon postponed — at least for a little while longer.