World No. 41 Anastasija Sevastova handed Serena Williams a shock first Fed Cup singles loss on Saturday but Latvia eventually fell 3-2 to the United States in the qualifier.
Sevastova won 7-6 (7/5), 3-6, 7-6 (7/4) to end Williams’ perfect Fed Cup record at 14 matches.
“We were playing in the USA so obviously the crowd was going to be for Serena. I just tried to give it my best,” Sevastova said of her win at the Angel of the Wings arena.
Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, bounced back from losing the first set by cruising through the second set in 33 minutes. But she was outplayed on the big points for a second tiebreak in the decider.
Sevastova used her powerful serve to deliver aces at key moments, and a precision forehand kept Williams on the move as the American ran out of gas in the final moments of the 2hr 25min marathon.
Williams looked fatigued in her first Fed Cup singles match in four years. She had played doubles with sister Venus in her last tournament appearance in 2018.
“It was a really intense match,” said the 38-year-old. “There were lots of points and lots of running.”
Her latest loss comes just weeks after she was shocked in the Australian Open last 32 by China’s world No. 27 Wang Qiang.
Earlier, former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko had kept Latvia alive with a 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 win over new Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in just under two hours.
The Americans had gone into the second day with a 2-0 lead after Kenin defeated Sevastova and Williams beat Ostapenko on Friday.
“I was fighting until the last point,” said Ostapenko. “I knew it was going to be a very tough match and the key thing for me was just to play aggressive.”
Kenin made amends in the deciding doubles match, partnering Bethanie Mattek-Sands to defeat Ostapenko and Sevastova 6-4, 6-0.
“We are very happy to have won this match against a tough opponent,” US team captain Kathy Rinaldi said after the record 18-time champions qualified for the April 14-19 Fed Cup Finals in Budapest. “They could easily have been contenders for Budapest too.”
The Fed Cup has followed the men’s Davis Cup competition by adopting a multi-nation finals tournament in one city.
As well as trying to increase the exposure of the women’s team event run by the International Tennis Federation, the extra TV revenue means an US$18 million (S$25 million) prize fund, of which US$12 million goes to the players and US$6 million to the federations.
Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Slovakia, Germany, Russia, Belarus, France, Australia, Czech Republic and hosts Hungary complete the 12-nation showdown.