ASHEVILLE, NC, USA -- An intriguing tie between two of the winningest Fed Cup squads is deadlocked after the first day, as Australia and last year's Fed Cup finalist United States each claimed one singles victory in their World Group first-round battle.
Recent Australian Open quarterfinalist and World No.13 Ashleigh Barty started the day by putting seven-time Fed Cup champions Australia up 1-0, evading a spirited fight from Sofia Kenin to triumph 6-1, 7-6(2). Australia is seeking their first Fed Cup title since 1974.
“It’s always a bonus going up 1-0, knowing you’ve kind of got your foot in the door a little bit,” Barty told the fedcup.com reporters, following her win.
Following that, World No.17 Madison Keys pulled the 18-time Fed Cup champion Americans level, clinching a swift 6-2, 6-2 victory over Kimberly Birrell. The United States is looking to go one better than they did last year, when they lost to the Czech Republic in the Fed Cup final.
The teams will move into a second day with nothing to separate them, and a blockbuster clash between the Top 20 players Keys and Barty could prove to be decisive for determining which squad moves into the World Group semifinals.
— Fed Cup (@FedCup) February 9, 2019
Barty won an incredible 91 percent of points on her first serve in her win over World No.37 Kenin, and slammed ten aces on her way to the 79-minute victory.
The Australian dominated in the opening frame, with stellar serves and tremendous defense propelling her to the one-set lead. After breaking for a 2-0 lead, Barty needed to fend off three break points in the next game to hold for 3-0. But the Australian cruised from there, breaking Kenin again to lead 5-1 before holding in the final game.
Barty had the upper hand for much of the second set as well, as Kenin double faulted on break point to drop serve at 1-1, and Barty was untroubled up to 5-4, where she served for the match. However, Kenin saved two match points in that game before breaking Barty for the first time, as Barty fired a double fault to drop serve and level the set at 5-5.
The first five points of the second-set tiebreak went against serve before Barty took command over Kenin, who was often misfiring with her forehand in the breaker. Barty exploited those mistakes to reel off the final five points of the tiebreak, ending the match by forcing one final error with a deep, heavy service return.
“I think my response at 6-5 was the most pleasing thing, knowing I came back out straightaway, moved on, kept my spots on serve, got back in control,” Barty said to fedcup.com.
— Fed Cup (@FedCup) February 9, 2019
However, the lead for Australia was short-lived as Keys emerged victorious in her encounter with 157th-ranked Birrell. The 20-year-old Australian has been having a breakthrough 2019, reaching the third round of the Australian Open with her first-ever Grand Slam match wins, among other highlights. But Keys out-winnered Birrell 16 to six, garnering the win after only 63 minutes.
Strong returning by Keys allowed her to take first blood early, breaking Birrell for 2-0, then quickly moving to a 4-1 lead. Birrell used some well-timed strong serves of her own to stave off two break points and hold for 4-2, but Keys struck once more two games later, crushing a service return to force an error and break to lead 6-2.
Keys broke twice in the second set to lead 5-1 and serve for the match in under an hour. But Birrell used some blistering backhands to finally get a handle on the American’s serve, and broke Keys at love to give herself a lifeline.
In the next game, Birrell had a game point to extend the match further, but squandered her chance with a netted forehand error. A long forehand followed, which brought up a first match point for Keys, and the American converted that chance with a beautiful backhand service return for a winner.