Though Japan lost to Belarus 3-2 in last weekend’s Fed Cup tie at Ariake Colosseum, there was some good news to emerge from the event.
Former Japan No. 1 Ayumi Morita, who has battled injuries the past several years, came off the bench on the second day of the tie to beat Belarus’ Aliaksandra Sasnovich and level the contest 2-2 heading into the doubles.
Morita, who was originally scheduled to only play in the doubles, was called into action by Japan captain Yuka Yoshida and responded with a gutsy performance in a 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-4 victory that took nearly three hours.
Following the paths of Kimiko Date and Ai Sugiyama, Morita, now 25, was once Japan’s brightest female prospect for the future. She was ranked as high as No. 40 (in October 2011), but shortly thereafter started having physical problems. When she took the court on Sunday, her WTA ranking had plummeted to 465th.
“I have had a low-back injury for three years, but I kept playing. Some tournaments I had to retire because of the injury,” Morita told Match Point ahead of the tie. “Last year in July my back got worse and I needed to rest it for a couple of months. I was trying to come back, but it took so much longer than I expected. I didn’t play any tournaments for eight months.”
Not only was Morita not scheduled to play singles against Belarus, she wasn’t even supposed to be a part of Japan’s team for the tie. Morita was only called into action as a last-minute replacement for Eri Hozumi, who had to drop out with an injury of her own just a week before.
“I’m very happy to be here as a member of the team,” stated Morita ahead of the clash. “My condition is getting better and better every day. I’m definitely ready.”
She was indeed.
The Gunma native, who was once the third-ranked junior player in the world, showed flashes of her old form in Sunday’s victory.
After taking a 3-0 lead in the final set against Sasnovich, Morita’s fitness was put to the test. She wobbled and lost four straight games to go down 4-3, before somehow summoning the energy and winning the last three games to capture the match.
“I felt good today because my body was OK after playing three hours,” Morita commented. “I still have a lot of things to improve to get to a higher level, but I am going to play some ITF tournaments in Japan, so hopefully I can play many more matches.”
Morita, who is planning to rejoin the WTA Tour during the grass court season, sounds like she has been given a new lease on life.
“I’m feeling good,” she said. “I don’t have any pain in my back now.”
On a mission: Japan faced a difficult task in trying to defeat the Belarus squad led by two-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, but did an admirable job in defeat.
Azarenka, who battled her own injuries last season, ended up factoring in all three Belarus victories in the tie. She won her two singles matches and was part of the decisive doubles team that clinched the tie.
Though a big star in her own right, the 25-year-old Azarenka said part of the reason she plays Fed Cup (where she boasts a 22-5 record) is because she wants to do something for the young players in her country.
“Playing Fed Cup means a lot, because it is the biggest tournament for our country in comparison to the Olympics,” Azarenka told Match Point. “When we are playing Fed Cup there is always much more attention. Through that attention and awareness we can bring a lot more inspiration and motivation to be more involved in tennis.
“That is my ultimate goal, to make sure that after I am done playing, that tennis grows and continues to get bigger and bigger in our country,” added Azarenka, the bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.
Azarenka, who played her first Fed Cup match at 15, said she has seen a lot of progress for the game in Belarus in the past decade.
“From where I started we have much more infrastructure and more of a system in the Belarussian federation, which I’m very happy to be a part of,” she said. “. . .We are trying to grow tennis not only in our capital (Minsk), which is already pretty big, but also outside. The ultimate goal is to make tennis the No. 1 sport in our country.”
Could Azarenka someday be the coach of the Fed Cup team for Belarus?
“It’s too far ahead. I never say never . . . but it could be an opportunity,” she said. “I would love to mentor some of the young girls as I do now when I go back home. But coaching is a little bit of a different situation. But definitely I want to help out and grow tennis as much as I can.”