Mon, 20 May 2019

Brisbane - Australia and Belarus shared the spoils on day one of their Fed Cup semi-final in Brisbane Saturday with Ashleigh Barty sweeping past Victoria Azarenka while Aryna Sabalenka ground down Samantha Stosur.

With the tie evenly poised at 1-1, the reverse singles on Sunday will be critical, with world number nine Barty first up against 10th ranked Sabalenka before the veteran pair of Stosur and Azarenka face off.

While Belarus are bidding to reach the final for the second time in three attempts, after being beaten by the United States in 2017, Australia are targeting their first decider in 26 years.

It's been an even longer wait between titles, with the last of Australia's seven victories coming in 1974.

France or Romania await this weekend's winner.

"I'm so proud of the level of tennis the girls put on today," said Australia captain Alicia Molik.

"It's a great position we're in and we are prepared for a fifth rubber if necessary. We have a quality doubles pairing."

That combination will see Barty and Stosur team up against Lidziya Marozava and Vera Lapko if the tie goes that far.

An ice cool Barty, who has rocketed through the ranks, breaking into the top 10 with her win at the Miami Open this month, proved too much for tour doubles partner Azarenka at Pat Rafter Arena, winning 7-6 (7/2), 6-3.

It hauled Australia back into the tie after Sabalenka toiled for 2hrs 47mins to battle past former US Open champion Stosur 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 in the opening rubber.

Barty's determination was on display from the first game when she saved three break points to hold serve.

A slew of errors in game three handed Azarenka a break before the Australian quickly evened up proceedings.

There was little between them until Azarenka had another three break points at 5-5. But once again the young gun dug deep to hold on then held her nerve in the tie break, reeling off seven straight points after losing the first two.

Barty promptly stamped her authority on the second set with a break to go 2-1 ahead and never looked like losing.

"It's really special playing at home, this is what Fed Cup is all about," she said, adding that the plan now was to "rest, recover and get my head around playing Aryna".

In an pulsating opening match Stosur, who was picked ahead of the higher-ranked Daria Gavrilova, broke first to go 2-1 in front.

But the big-hitting Sabalenka immediately broke back before serving problems cost her again when she sent down two consecutive double faults to once more hand Stosur the advantage.

They then traded service breaks in a rollercoaster set before the Belarusian finally held for 6-5 then took the set on her fifth set point.

Sabalenka won the first two games of the second set and looked comfortable, but a gutsy Stosur reeled off three in a row as the crowd roared her on before wrapping up another see-sawing set in which both players again struggled to hold serve.

But as Stosur tired, the Belarusian grabbed the upper hand in the deciding set with a searing crosscourt forehand for a 3-1 lead, and there was no way back for the 35-year-old.

"It was an unbelievable match. She played so quick I couldn't touch the ball at times," said Sabalenka. "But when you're playing for your country, you have to fight to the end."

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