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Japan, Belarus tied after opening day of Fed Cup World Group II playoff

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Kurumi Nara won her singles match to cancel out former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka’s victory in the opening rubber as Japan and Belarus ended the first day of their Fed Cup World Group II playoff on Saturday tied at 1-1.

Two-time former Australian Open champion Azarenka, who has slipped to No. 32 in the world rankings after an injury-plagued 2014, dominated Japan’s No. 2 Misaki Doi at Ariake Colosseum, winning 6-1, 6-2 in just 1 hour, 9 minutes.

But 23-year-old Nara, who has risen to No. 54 in the world after winning her first singles title on the WTA Tour in Rio de Janeiro last year, evened the score with a hard-fought 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory over Olga Govortsova to keep Japan in firm contention going into the final day.

Nara is scheduled to play Azarenka on Sunday as both teams’ No. 1s go head to head, before Doi takes on Govortsova and the doubles team of Shuko Aoyama and Ayumi Morita faces Vera Lapko and Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

Nara has never faced Azarenka before in her career, but Japan’s ace believes she is capable of an upset.

“There are bad points to reflect on from my match today, but first of all I’m happy that I could contribute to the team,” said Nara.

“My opponent tomorrow will play a faster match than today and she will make less mistakes, but I’m moving very well and if I can make her work then I think I have a chance.”

Azarenka wasted little time in staking Belarus to an early lead, swatting Doi aside in a match in which the Japanese player’s first break point did not come until midway through the second set.

Azarenka will again be favored to come out on top when she takes on Nara on Sunday, but the 25-year-old is taking nothing for granted in her first Fed Cup appearance in three years.

“I’ve never played against her so I don’t know much about her,” Azarenka said of Nara. “I think she is an up-and-coming player and she has had some great results and good wins, so I just really want to focus on my game and try to execute my shots and play aggressive tennis.”

Nara survived a late fightback from Govortsova to close out the first set, but let her opponent back into the match in the second to tie it at 1-1.

Nara then took advantage of a leg injury that forced Govortsova to have courtside treatment midway through the third set, and the Japanese player showed no mercy with her opponent virtually immobile for the rest of the match.

“At the end, I knew that my opponent was injured but I didn’t want to lose my concentration,” said Nara, who won the final 12 points of the match. “I never knew when she might start moving again, so I had to be aware of the danger and focus until the end.”

Doi managed to win a set against Azarenka in their only previous meeting — at last year’s U.S. Open — but the Belarussian was in no mood to let the same happen again.

“Every time you play against anybody, there is going to be a different story,” said Azarenka. “When we played in the U.S. Open, it was one of the matches where I wasn’t really healthy. I’m not finding an excuse for that, it’s just that it was a different situation.

“Last year was a really difficult year for me. I didn’t play any match where I wasn’t in pain. Today I felt healthy, I felt really motivated and I felt focused, so it’s a different game.”

Japan, which breezed through Asia/Oceania Zone I in February without dropping a single match, is aiming to return to World Group II after being relegated last year.

Japan captain Yuka Yoshida is hoping her side can score its first win over Belarus after losing their only previous encounter in 1999.

“Azarenka didn’t make many mistakes and was basically perfect, so for Doi it was a difficult match but she gave it her best shot and that will stand her in good stead for tomorrow,” said Yoshida.

“Nara had the pressure of being the team’s No. 1, but she kept fighting and got the win, which is huge for the team.”