SYDNEY (Reuters) - Former world number one Victoria Azarenka was surprisingly given the nod to play singles for Belarus in their Fed Cup semi-final against Australia and will meet her often doubles partner Ashleigh Barty in the second match on Saturday.
The double Australian Open champion was chosen ahead of world number 35 Aliaksandra Sasnovich probably because of her success on the blue hardcourts Down Under, where she has also won the Brisbane and Sydney titles.
It will be her first singles appearance in the Fed Cup since a World Group playoff against Russia in 2016 after she had a baby then had to limit her travel due to a custody dispute. She played doubles against Germany earlier this year.
Azarenka and Barty teamed up for doubles at the Australia Open and again at Miami last month, where they made the semi-finals.
Azarenka beat Barty the only time the pair have met in singles - last year in Tokyo - but since then the Australian has moved into the world’s top 10 and won her first Premier Tier tournament in Miami last month.
Barty said the 6-4 6-2 loss to Azarenka in Tokyo had been “one way traffic” and expected the world number 61 to draw on her success in Australia when they clash after former U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur’s opening match against world number 10 Aryna Sabalenka.
“In Australia she’s had some of her best results,” Barty said. “She’s very familiar with this surface, with this court, and I think in a way it’s remarkable what she’s been able to do after having (her son) Leo and coming back so quickly and being so successful.”
Stosur’s selection by Australia captain Alicia Molik to open the tie against the hard-hitting Sabalenka was also bit surprising given the 35-year-old’s struggles at home tournaments.
The 2011 U.S. Open champion has never gone beyond the fourth round at the Australian Open and struggled in both Brisbane and Sydney, but Molik said her experience was what swayed it in her favour over the higher ranked Daria Gavrilova.
“It’s a player Sam’s really familiar with and that’s really important in a tie like this, one where no doubt experience has to count as well,” Molik said.
“It’d be incredible if I saw her on the weekend get the best out of herself.
“She’s achieved so much and more than most in her career and you talk about longevity and professionalism - you’ve got your number one person sitting right here.”
The reverse singles and doubles match, if required, are scheduled for Sunday.
France are hosting Romania indoors on clay in Rouen in the other semi-final.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly