USA survive Ukrainian fightback to clinch Finals place

16/04/2022 17:00

USA were pushed all the way in Asheville as Ukraine's Dayana Yastremska and Katarina Zavatska both scored upsets in the reverse singles on Saturday to force a live doubles

By Ed Pearson
USA survive Ukrainian fightback to clinch Finals place

USA were pushed all the way in Asheville as Ukraine's Dayana Yastremska and Katarina Zavatska both scored upsets in the reverse singles on Saturday to force a live doubles.

But Kathy Rinaldi’s selection of Jessica Pegula and Asia Muhammad proved an inspired one as they found a way past Lyudmyla Kichenok and Yastremska to seal a memorable tie 3-2.

“I will never forget this moment,” said Billie Jean King Cup debutant Muhammad after the match. “[My call-up to the team] was really, really last-minute. I was so nervous in the first set. I wasn’t really expecting to play today, but I’m happy we were able to clinch it. The support of our team was amazing and to be able to look at them and feel them riding every single point with us helped a lot.”

Going into the final day at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center, Ukraine rewrote the script by recording back-to-back upsets in the reverse singles.

Yastremska kept her team alive with an impressive 6-3 6-4 victory over Pegula in the battle of the No. 1 singles players.

The Ukrainian fired 16 winners compared to her opponent’s three and with Pegula only converting one of nine break point chances, it’s little wonder that she couldn’t find a way to seal the tie in the third match.

Draped in her country’s flag, Yastremska told on-court interview Blair Henley that she didn’t feel as nervous going into the second day’s play.

“Today I was more relaxed,” she said. “I was just fighting. I felt a little bit of pressure because it was an important win, so I just gave it my all.

“I’ve always been proud of my country and I’ve always been proud I’m Ukrainian and I always like to represent my country, but now, in this moment, it’s tough to describe it. My heart stays at home and I really want to go back there, but my mind is here and I have to play.

“I have a responsibility on my sister. It’s just super nice to be in a safe place here and to play in that amazing crowd with that great support. It’s nice to see the Ukrainian flags everywhere.”

Buoyed by her team-mate’s victory in the opening match on Saturday, Ukraine’s No. 2 Zavatska produced one of the best matches of her life to notch a first career win against a Top 50 player when she overcame world No. 46 Shelby Rogers 6-3 6-4.

Zavatska could do no wrong in the extraordinary win, which all of a sudden meant that the tie would be going into a decisive doubles.

“I cannot believe that I made it!” said a shocked Zavatska after the match. “It was such a good match. I was in the zone completely. Shelby, she played well. Today I was really into it, fighting like crazy putting my legs compared to yesterday and I just had all the energy from the crowd supporting me.

“They brought me so many emotions, it felt like all the stadium was for me even though we’re in the USA. It felt like such a big support for the first time in my life.”

Both captains made changes to their nominated doubles duos, Rinaldi bringing back Pegula to partner Asia Muhammad in a complete line-up change. Ukrainian skipper Olga Savchuk split the Kichenok twins to ensure that Yastremska had her chance to make one more impact on this match.

It was the American duo that first moved ahead in the match, consolidating a break in the sixth game to edge ahead 4-2. But the Ukrainian pair broke back at 5-5 and forced an opening set tiebreak, which proved a tense affair.

A double fault off the racket of Kichenok handed the US team the first set and in the second, Pegula and Muhammad never looked troubled as they clinched the match 7-6(5) 6-3.

US captain Rinaldi said: “I am incredibly proud of the team. I couldn’t ask for more. Congratulations to the Ukrainian team. They brought it. It was incredible tennis today from them. They have to be incredibly proud of themselves and their team, but these two [Muhammad and Pegula] brought it in the doubles and closed it. I am super proud.”

Team USA will look to go one better than last year at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals, where they were knocked out in a decisive doubles at the semi-final stage. Ukraine will compete in the Billie Jean King Cup Play-offs, which are due to take place on 11-12 November.