Defending Fed Cup champions the United States were one point from advancing to the semi-finals Saturday after a comfortable victory for Venus Williams, with sister Serena waiting in the wings for her much anticipated comeback.
Seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams needed an hour and 19 minutes to brush aside her 124th-ranked Dutch opponent Arantxa Rus 6-1, 6-4.
A more laboured win followed for the mercurial CoCo Vandeweghe, who lost her first set to Richel Hogenkamp and broke a racket in frustration during the second before fighting back to a 4-6, 7-6 (8/6), 6-3 victory.
They were both cheered from the bench by Serena Williams, who is poised to make her own return to the sport on Sunday after a year away and the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia, who attended in the arms of her father Alexis Ohanian one row behind.
Venus’ win came in her 1,000th career match and her 22nd singles appearance in a tournament she first played in 1999, but she insisted milestones were far from her mind.
“I don’t really know about these milestones when they happen,” she said. “It’s just great to be playing the game that I love – not really going for milestones, but then they happen.”
In front of a roaring home crowd in mountainous Asheville, North Carolina, Venus won the toss and served first, closing out the opening game with a searing ace in an early show of intent.
The second set saw the players locked in long rallies and the first five games resulted in service breaks.
They were level at 2-2 before Venus eventually began to pull away.
Williams acknowledged the second half was tighter than it could have been.
“I was trying to find the balance between going big and going too big,” she said. “I think that today’s match hopefully will help me for tomorrow.”
After reaching two Grand Slam finals in 2017, Williams lost in the first round of the Australian Open last month to Belinda Bencic of Switzerland. But the 37-year-old insisted she had plenty of time to turn things around.
“I think I’m playing well. I just had some bad luck, I played players who just were on fire,” she said. “Sometimes that happens, (it’s) just the beginning of the year.”
Serena, who is scheduled to play doubles on Sunday alongside Lauren Davis, received a big ovation during team introductions and sat on court with her teammates during Venus’s match.
Tearful return for Kvitova
Earlier in the day, Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic made a tearful return to the Fed Cup, admitting her team’s 2-0 lead over Switzerland in Prague had been inspired by a moving tribute to fellow All England Club champion Jana Novotna.
“We went onto the court and held the minute’s silence which made us cry,” 27-year-old Kvitova told reporters after beating Viktorija Golubic 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.
The tribute to Novotna, who died aged 49 last November after a long battle with cancer, came just before Kvitova’s first Fed Cup rubber since a knife-wielding burglar cut her racquet hand in December 2016.
Under a large portrait of 1998 Wimbledon champion Novotna holding the trophy, the Czech team remained silent for a while, then started a round of applause which was shared by the crowd in Prague’s O2 Arena.
“It was very sad... but a nice gesture,” said Kvitova.
Barbora Strycova then eased past Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-4 to put the Czechs in charge of the first round tie.
Belarus, 2017’s runners-up, were level at 1-1 with Germany after the opening day in Minsk.
Antonia Lottner, making her Fed Cup debut for Germany, downed Aliaksandra Sasnovich 7-5, 6-4 after Aryna Sabalenka had earlier seen off Tatjana Maria 4-6, 6-1, 6-2.
In La Roche sur Yon, France, like Germany two-time winners of the Fed Cup, fought back to 1-1 against Belgium.
Elise Mertens, who made the Australian Open semi-finals last month, gave Belgium the first point by easing past Pauline Parmentier 6-2, 6-1 before Kristina Mladenovic pulled France level with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Kirsten Flipkens.