MINSK, Belarus - With a crowd of nearly 9,000 strong behind her, Belarusian teenager Aryna Sabalenka engineered a stunning final-set comeback to pull her country level in the Fed Cup final on Saturday.
The newly-minted Belarusian No.1 was a break down three times in the final set, but rallied for victory over US Open champion Sloane Stephens, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in the second match of the day in the final between Belarus and the United States.
This weekend affair is the first-ever Fed Cup final in Belarus' history, while the United States looks to win its first trophy since 2000.
"I've never felt so much emotion in a match," Sabalenka said following the victory. “When you play at home and you are down 0-1 and you have to win and you fight with yourself. My game was not so good. I was fighting with myself and finally I did it. I just started crying because it was such an important match.”
Saturday's win is the latest in a series of firsts for the 19-year-old; she cracked the Top 100 last month after a run to her first WTA final at the Tianjin Open, and the victory marks her first against both a Top 20 player, and Grand Slam champion.
Sabalenka's all-or-nothing style produced some stunning winners which thrilled her compatriots in the Chizhovka Arena, as she struck 31 winners over the course of the match - nearly triple Stephens' total (12).
An early break and a 3-0 lead set the tone for Sabalenka's strong first set, and though Stephens got back on serve in the seventh game, the US Open champion could do little to stem the home favorite's tide of momentum.
A ripped forehand return winner - one of six off that wing and 15 total for the Belarusian over the first nine games - gave her another break, and she pocketed a one-set lead with more aggressive play, sealing it with emphasis on a forehand volley winner.
In the second set, Stephens found her footing, and the American's dogged defense forced her younger opponent to misfire more often as the set progressed.
Sabalenka struck just four winners against 19 unforced erorrs in the second set, as Stephens used a key break in the sixth game en route to tying the match at one set apiece - her first set won in five matches since raising the US Open trophy.
Though the American broke Sabalenka three times in the final set - the last from 40-0 down in the fifth game - she was unable to stretch her lead any greater than that margin, as the World No.78's aggressive tennis got her back level each time.
In a mammoth final game of the match, Sabalenka saw three match points go by, but made no mistake on the fourth when she rifled a return that was too big for Stephens to handle to secure victory.
In Saturday's first rubber, CoCo Vandeweghe defeated Aliaksandra Sasnovich, 6-4, 6-4.
A break in the first set gave the American an advantage she hardly relinquished in the match, as she never trailed, but Vandeweghe staved off a valiant effort from both Sasnovich - and the Chizhovka Arena crowd - to get the Belarusian back into the match late in the second set.
“That’s my job as No. 1 singles player, to get ourselves on the board today in the first match,” Vandeweghe said after the victory. "I take the energy that's around me and I really use it to my advantage. I've played a few away ties, but this one is extra special.
“The level was very high, CoCo played really amazing today,” Sasnovich added in defeat, after tasting her first loss in five Fed Cup singles matches this year - a level which earned her the Fed Cup's Heart Award during Friday's draw ceremony.
“I played well. I played the advice, the tactics the coach gave me. He said I played good. Tomorrow is a new day and I will be ready to play.”
With the final tied 1-1, Vandeweghe will face Sabalenka first up on Sunday, with Stephens and Sasnovich to follow in the second singles match. Vera Lapko and Lidziya Marozava, and Alison Riske and Shelby Rogers, are the nominated teams for a potential fifth and deciding doubles rubber, though both teams' captains can make changes prior to a live rubber.