EVERETT — One lost a tough three-set singles match just hours earlier and was still coming down from winning a grueling two-week tournament across the Pacific Ocean the previous weekend.
The other was the team member who probably generated the most blank reactions when her name was announced as a member of the U.S. Fed Cup team.
But together Sofia Kenin and Benthanie Mattek-Sands were dominating, and Saturday night they sent the U.S. to the Fed Cup Finals.
Kenin and Mattek-Sands came to the rescue, winning the deciding doubles match as the U.S. defeated Latvia 3-2 in their Fed Cup Qualifier before a loud and adoring crowd at Angel of the Winds Arena.
The U.S. came into the day with a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five competition, but Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko and Anastasija Sevastova scored stunning singles upsets of Kenin and Serena Williams, respectively, to send the contest to a deciding doubles match.
Kenin, who won her first major when she captured the Australian Open title Feb. 1, showed no signs of fatigue from her many escapades, bouncing around the court with her pony tail flopping above her visor. And Mattek-Sands, a five-time major champ in doubles who was rocking a kilt-like skirt and knee-high socks, displayed a soft pair of hands at the net. The duo also had the chemistry that comes from playing together on tour as they routed Ostapenko and Sevastova 6-4, 6-0 to clinch the win for the U.S.
“As a doubles player it’s the last match, so you don’t know if you’re going to play a dead rubber or it’s coming all down to you,” Mattek-Sands told the crowd after the match. “I’m ready no matter what. I was cheering the squad on, we had a lot of momentum coming from (Friday), up 2-0, and so for me it was all about energy. And this beast over here (Kenin) always brings a ton of it.”
With the victory, the U.S. advanced as one of 12 teams that will compete in the Fed Cup Finals on April 14-19 in Budapest, Hungary.
“I am so incredibly proud, I love these girls,” U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said. “It’s been an incredible couple of days. We had some hard-fought matches today, they are a tough team, they came out ready, they played well today. But we finished it in a strong fashion and I couldn’t be any more proud of my entire team.”
The U.S. was reeling Saturday after Ostapenko overpowered Kenin 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 in the opening singles match, then Sevastova shocked Williams in a third-set tiebreaker 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (4) to tie it up.
But Kenin, who was a late substitute in the doubles match for Alison Riske, and Mattek-Sands made sure their match was never in doubt. The duo broke Sevastova in the third game of the first set when Mattek-Sands placed a delicate sliced backhand down the line past Ostapenko, with the U.S. holding serve throughout to win the first set. Then in the second set, with Ostapenko and Sevastova clearly tiring following their long day of work, Kenin set up a break in the opening game when she lifted a lob over the Latvians, and created a second break almost single-handedly in the third game with two return winners and a game-winning volley. The match ended when a video challenge showed Sevastova’s return was long, causing Kenin and Mattek-Sands to jump up and down and embrace each other in triumph.
“It was obviously a tough singles match, Jelena played really well,” Kenin said. “But I was ready to fight for the team and we got the job done. I was fired up and probably volleyed the best in my life today.”
Williams, who had been a perfect 14-0 in Fed Cup singles play prior to Saturday, had the tie within her grasp, but was unable to close the deal. The 23-time grand-slam winner, who’s ranked No. 9 in the world, had a terrible start as she was broken in her first four service games by the 41st-ranked Sevastova and ended up dropping the first set in a breaker.
After Williams won the second set in routine manner, it came down to a tense and exciting third set. Williams by that point had found her service game, but the 38-year-old also appeared to be fatiguing as Sevastova ran her all over the court.
In the deciding tiebreaker, with the fans chanting “U-S-A” in between almost every point, the score was tied 4-4 when Williams fired a forehand long, then had a frame shot fly up into the scoreboard to give Sevastova match point. Sevastova drilled a serve down the middle that Williams couldn’t handle the keep Latvia in the tie.
Kenin, ranked No. 7 in the world after winning the Australian Open, was also in position to clinch it for the Americans, but dropped a tough one to the 40th-ranked Ostapenko.
Ostapenko displayed tremendous power the previous night in her double-tiebreak loss to Williams. The Latvian showed the same power Saturday, but this time kept the ball in play more often, forcing Kenin to scramble just to stay in points. Ostapenko dictated play, with points being a matter of whether Ostapenko hit a winner — she had 34 to Kenin’s 13 — or committed an error — 49 to Kenin’s 25.
Ostapenko came up with those winners off both her forehand and backhand to take the first set. Ostapenko’s serve deserted her in the second set, with Kenin taking particular advantage of Ostapenko’s second serve to pull the match back even.
Then the third set turned into a battle not of who could break serve, but rather who could hold it. Ostapenko fell behind 15-40 in the set’s fourth game, but battled back to hold and take a 3-1 lead. It was the set’s only hold of serve until Ostapenko put it away in the eighth game, taking the tie to the fourth singles match.