On paper, the USA are massive favorites to win the Fed Cup final over upstart Belarus.
But on court, when tennis players are toiling for their country, a lot of things can happen.
So the fact that home-team Belarus and the U.S. are tied 1-1 after the first day of singles Saturday in Minsk is a surprise, but not a total shock.
Coco Vandeweghe, the American No. 1 who entered the top 10 in the WTA Tour rankings for the first time earlier this week, opened with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
There was, as Vandeweghe put it, a “brain fart” when she was up a set and a break in the second set. But she quickly put it right.
The second rubber, between US Open champion Sloane Stephens and up-and-coming teenager Aryna Sabalenka, was a different story.
Stephens, whose Open aftermath has been like one big hangover, has yet to win a match since she defeated Madison Keys in the final in New York. Then again, she has played just four in the nearly two months since then.
While the official site’s “gamer” made no mention of the thick wrap below the American’s left knee, it clearly seemed to be an issue in Belarus’s 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 win.
Slam champ vs. up-and-comer
Sabalenka is a talented but raw up-and-comer who reached the final in Tianjin, China last month. She was up in both sets against the more experienced Maria Sharapova, but lost both.
Much of the match simply wasn’t in Stephens’ hands. There were 31 winners and 57 unforced errors directly attributed to Sabalenka; that’s about a third of the total points right there.
Some shots, Stephens wouldn’t have been able to chase down no matter how healthy she was. But the American’s speed and silky movement are a cornerstone of her game. Against an erratic opponent like Sabalenka, she might well have gotten enough balls back into play to force even more errors.
But she wasn’t able to, even if she put in a solid effort to get back into it in a solid second set.
She gave her opponent and the occasion all the credit.
“We’re playing Fed Cup, so anything goes,” Stephens said. “I want to play like that. That was insane. Playing for her country, the crowd behind her, she played great.”
For Sabalenka, there was plenty of emotion.
“I don’t know, I feel like disappointed, was a really hard fight for me. I felt really bad during the match. My mentality. I don’t know what happened. I feel all these emotions. Finally I won. I’m just happy,” she said during a post-match interview on court. “During the game I didn’t think she’s 15 (in the world) I was thinking I have to win because my team was 0-1 and I have to make the score 1-1, so that’s all what I had on my mind during the match.
“First time I cry after the match. Actually big win for me,” she added. “It’s like it’s (the) final, it’s home, and you play against America. They won it 17 times. That’s why the emotions are coming really more. I didn’t feel it before.”
Decisive Sunday looms
The second and final day begins at 6 a.m. EST (3 a.m. PST) and will have both reverse singles and the doubles as the fifth rubber.
First up will be the battle between the two No. 1s – Vandeweghe and Sabalenka.
It will be loud, and feisty. And the fascinating dynamic will be to see how the relatively inexperienced Sabalenka reacts against an opponent who has a much more dynamic, cocky on-court presence in Vandweghe.
Then, with one of the squads up 2-1 and looking for one more victory to clinch, US captain Kathy Rinaldi has a decision to make.
Can Stephens, under the current conditions, take care of Sasnovich? Or does she substitute in Shelby Rogers or Alison Riske?
Both are solid; neither, obviously, have Stephens’s resumé.
And, in the case of a fifth and Cup-deciding doubles rubber, what happens then?
The U.S. are sorely missing the injured Bethanie Mattek-Sands, recovering from a serious knee injury suffered at Wimbledon. She’s one of the best doubles players in the world.
Vandeweghe has the best doubles ranking and the most big-event experience in doubles. She has a little experience with Riske, more with Rogers, with whom she played at Indian Wells and the US Open this year and won a $50,000 on grass back in 2015.
For Belarus, the options aren’t that great.
But they have never played together.
Marozava last played doubles in Fed Cup in 2013, but with Sasnovich.
— victoria azarenka (@vika7) November 11, 2017
How different would this tie look with a fit and match tough Victoria Azarenka playing for Belarus? It seemed, when the former No. 1 returned to action during the grass-court season this summer, that this is where we would be, five months later.
But because of her well-documented custody issues, it didn’t work out that way.
(Screenshots from the ITF’s Fed Cup streaming service)