EVERETT – About six hours later than she might have envisioned, Sofia Kenin could finally celebrate playing in a clinching U.S. victory in a Fed Cup qualifier.
Long after Kenin, the Australian Open champion, had her eight-match singles winning streak snapped, and after Serena Williams was also dealt a surprising defeat, the Americans were finally victorious over Latvia on Saturday night at Angel of the Winds Arena.
That’s because Kenin teamed with Bethanie Mattek-Sands to defeat Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko and Anastasija Sevastova in the decisive double match, giving the U.S. a 3-2 victory in the best-of-five match spread over two days.
That it would have come to the doubles match would have seemed unthinkable before Saturday’s matches started, with the U.S. up 2-0.
Kenin, fresh off her Australian Open victory, would surely finish off Latvia.
And even when she didn’t, losing in three sets to Ostapenko, surerly Serena Williams would get the clinching win, with 23 majors to her credit and a 14-0 lifetime record in Fed Cup singles. Right?
Wrong. Williams, a day after living by the tiebreaker when she won two over Ostapenko, died by the tiebreaker. She lost a pair to Sevastova, falling 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 7-6 (7-4).
But in the end it didn’t matter and the U.S. earned a spot in the Fed Cup Finals’ new format: a 12-team “World Cup of Tennis” that will be played April 14-19 in Budapest, Hungary.
Kenin was a late replacement for Alison Riske in the doubles match. She and Mattek-Sands, a doubles specialist who has won nine major doubles titles, played together in the Australian Open last month, reaching the third round. Last year, they won the China Open women’s doubles.
Their familiarity showed and they wore down Ostapenko and Sevastova, who had to be tired, winning 6-4, 6-0 in a match they controlled from the outset, finishing at 10:24 p.m., nearly seven hours after Kenin started her singles match.
When Latvia’s shot on match point went long, Kenin leaped three times and jumped into Mattek-Sands’ arms. Minutes later, Mattek-Sands paraded the American flag in front of a crowd that was half the size that started the day but still loud.
“As a doubles player in the last match, you don’t know if it’s going (to be a meaningless match) or if it will all come down to you,” Mattek-Sands said. “I was ready no matter what. For me, it was all about energy and this beast (Kenin) always brings it and that’s why I love playing with her.”
Said Kenin: “It was a tough singles match, but I got the job done (in doubles). … I think I volleyed the best of my life.”
A day earlier, everything went right for the U.S., with Kenin and Williams winning in straight sets. Kenin defeated Sevastova 6-2, 6-2 and Williams beat Ostapenko 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-3).
But Kenin found herself in a tough match from the beginning Saturday, matching her tenacity and consistent ground strokes against Ostapenko’s power, on her serves and ground strokes. In a back-and-forth match, Ostapenko prevailed 6-3, 2-6, 6-2.
That put Williams on the spot. Not only had she never lost in Fed Cup singles, but she had beaten Sevastova 6-3, 6-0 in the semifinals of 2018 U.S. Open.
None of that mattered when Sevastova, ranked No. 41 in the world, broke Williams, ranked No. 9, in her first four service games to take a 5-2 lead in the first set.
That seemed to wake up Williams, who piled up unforced errors at an alarming rate through the first seven games. She won four straight games, then had three set points with Sevastova serving while down 6-5.
But Williams failed to convert, and it end up costing her dearly as Sevastova never trailed in the tiebreaker.
Williams led 5-1 in the second set before the crowd got a brief scare. But Williams closed it out in style, winning all four points on Sevastova’s serve in the final game.
That put the packed house of 6,367 into a frenzy, and the third set was fantastic, with both players coming up with big points. There were no breaks of serve, sending the set to a tiebreaker. Sevastova won the final three points of that, much to the crowd’s dismay.
But those who stayed went home happy.
“I am so incredibly proud,” said U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi. “It was an incredible couple of days. They are a tough team. They came out ready and played tough today, but we finished it in a strong fashion.”