Serena Williams won both her singles rubbers to help lead the U.S. past Belarus in Fed Cup. (Steven Senne/AP)
Fed Cup action headlined the week of tennis, with the U.S. bageling Belarus 5-0 on the heels of two singles wins from Serena Williams, and an unlikely Serbian played hero to send the Serbs to the World Group semifinals in April.
Let's take a closer look at the week's action with some grades.
U.S. vs. Belarus Fed Cup tie: C-plus. Victoria Azarenka took all the "Woo!" out of Worcester, Mass., (OK, enough grunting jokes already) when she ruled herself out of both singles matches due to a mysterious lower back injury. Without the prospect of a Serena vs. Vika showdown, the weekend quickly turned into Williams Watch 2012, as we waited to see how well Serena was playing and whether Venus would play at all. As it happened, Serena played what she described as "the worst match" of her career in a 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 win over Anastasia Yakimova, and Venus indeed took the court in a quick 6-1, 6-2 doubles win with Liezel Huber. (And In non-Williams news, Christina McHale notched two strong singles wins as the Americans cruised to a 5-0 win.)
I suspect Serena would be far harsher with the grading, given that her form was so sketchy in her match against Yakimova on Sunday. She wasn't happy with how the decisive rubber unfolded, saying the opening set was "definitely the worst set (of her career), by far." She continued: "At one point I hit a forehand almost in the stands, and I almost walked off the court." While her comments after the match were lighthearted after a lopsided U.S. victory, she was clearly upset enough to "pull a Baghdatis" on a changeover. And that was probably the best piece of hitting she did during that troublesome first set. “Probably a lot of power, which I have," Williams said, when asked what makes a quality racket smash, "and a tremendous amount of anger. It just gets better when you have more anger.”
The smash didn't help. Yakimova went on to win the first set 7-5 with Serena unable to find any rhythm or range. But Williams rebounded to win the next two sets 6-1, 6-1 to clinch the tie for the U.S. over Belarus. With the win in hand, Serena was back to her joking self. “The ground lifted up to my racket, I don't know how it happened,” she smiled, explaining the racket smash. “I don't recommend it. I haven't done that in a match in a very long time."
All joking aside, it was a spotty weekend for the American No. 1, who won both her singles rubbers but had slow starts to each. Perhaps it was the rustiness since returning from Australia, the ankle that she says isn't fully healed but is "fine," or that the tie was played indoors, but Serena will have plenty of motivation when she takes the practice courts before her next tournament in Monterrey.
Bojana Jovanovski: A-minus. After a strong push to get into the World Group over the past two years, the Serbs have been stuck in a holding pattern, having failed to notch a win in World Group I despite having a team that, at least on paper, has the talent to win at least three rubbers. Not many teams can boast two former No. 1s, but it's no secret that Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic don't exactly mesh well as teammates, and Ivanovic has recently struggled to summon her best when playing for her country (she went 1-4 in 2010 and '11 Fed Cup action). So with Ivanovic sitting out this tie (Captain Dejan Vranes refused to comment on her absence, perhaps hinting at some discord) and Jankovic unable to play her reverse-singles after injuring her thigh in her Day 1 win, things were once again looking grim for Team Serbia.
But Fed Cup and Davis Cup are where unlikely heroes emerge. This weekend that role was gamely played by 20-year-old Bojana Jovanovski. Down 2-1 in the tie after Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer dispatched Jankovic's stand-in, Alexandra Krunic, 6-1, 6-0, Jovanovski played a solid match to beat Kirsten Flipkins in straight sets to level the tie, and then teamed with Krunic to win the decisive rubber on foreign soil, 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-1, to notch their first win in World Group I and advance to the semifinals against Russia. Not a bad day's work for one who worried her inexperience in doubles -- she only plays at Slams -- would haunt her. "It's not that easy to play the deciding match for Serbia in something you're not very good," Jovanovski said after. It may not be easy, but sometimes ignorance is bliss.
On the flip side, it's a disappointing loss for Belgium, who played without Kim Clijsters. If they had pulled this tie out and had Clijsters back for the semifinals against Russia, they would have had as good a chance as any to make the final.
Judy Murray: A. The much-hyped newly-appointed Fed Cup captain is off to a flying start, as her British team went 4-0 last week, notching wins over Portugal, the Netherlands, Israel and Austria to earn the right to a World Group playoffs in April. British No. 1 Elena Baltacha did what No. 1s are supposed to do, winning all four of her singles matches. When Anne Keothavong stumbled in her singles match against the Netherlands, the youngsters picked up the slack, with Heather Watson and Laura Robson combining to win a hotly contested doubles match to win the tie.
I wondered how Murray would be able to integrate the team of veterans and newcomers, each of whom have big, if not disparate personalities. But so far the experiment is working out, as the LTA posted video after video of a cohesive group who seemed to genuinely enjoy each other's company. Of course, it's easy to have a blast when you're winning, and Murray's true test will come down the road when the team isn't enjoying the same level of success.
But for now this is a great result for British tennis and Murray's leadership and charisma is already paying off. She's already done the morning talk show rounds in London and the team's success got a surprising amount of traction in the press. The more attention for women's tennis in Britain, the better.
Juan Monaco and Tomas Berdych: A. The fan-favorite from Argentina broke a five-year title drought to win his fourth career title in Vina Del Mar, beating countryman Carlos Berlocq 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-1 in the final. He had to return to South America and play on red clay to do it, but hey, I'm sure Monaco, or "Pico" as he's called by fans and friends, isn't complaining. After all, he had lost his last seven finals before Sunday.
Meanwhile, Berdych had a solid run to the title in Montpellier, beating Gael Monfils 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 to notch his first indoor title since 2005. It was a good win for Berdych who improved his record in finals to 7-6 while dropping Monfils, who is struggling with a knee injury that leaves him questionable for France's Davis Cup tie against Canada this weekend, to 4-13 in finals. Yes, you read that right. Monfils is a mere 4-13 in Tour finals. That just says ... so much.
Team France: D. The French Federation of Tennis doesn't have it easy, and I don't envy Nicolas Escude's position as he tries to captain a squad of talented but, how do I put this delicately, mercurial set of personalities. But if there ever was a tennis federation that consistently hamstrings itself, it's the FFT.
With the Olympics being played on the hallowed grounds at Wimbledon this summer, you would think the French tennis federation would finally see the light and put an end to its long-running feud with its No. 1 player who, incidentally, actually has a chance to get France a medal this summer. Instead, the federation continues to put Marion Bartoli's Olympic prospects in jeopardy, holding firm on its rule that anyone playing for France, whether at the Olympics or in Fed Cup, must rely on the FFT coaching staff and cannot use any outside coaching staff.
That of course has a significant impact on Bartoli, who is coached by her father, Walter. No other major federation institutes this rule and for good reason. Could you imagine the Russian Federation telling Maria Sharapova she can't work with Thomas Hogstedt during Fed Cup, or the German Federation telling its No. 1, Andrea Petkovic, that she can't work with Petar Popovich so long as she's playing under their flag? Of course not. And they don't.
So once again, France, a country with no one in the Top 50 other than Bartoli, contested another Fed Cup tie without their top player (she hasn't played for France since 2004), and got into another tiff with arguably their second-best player, Aravane Rezai. A former top-20 blaster who has slipped to No. 123 in the WTA rankings, Rezai left the team over the weekend, though reports conflict as to whether Escude asked her to leave or whether she left on her own accord. The move cost her a wildcard into the Paris tournament and the timing meant she couldn't play qualifying. All this and France lost 2-3 to Slovakia. Escude made a questionable call in putting Alize Cornet in for a decisive tie instead of the higher-ranked Virginie Razzano, who beat Dominika Cibulkova the day before.