Sabalenka edges struggling Stephens to level Fed Cup final

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Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka returns the ball to US Sloane Stephens, on November 11, 2017 in Minsk, during their Fed Cup final tennis match between Belarus and the United States. AFP

MINSK, Belarus — Sloane Stephens’ miserable run continued as she lost a tough three-setter to Belarus teenager Aryna Sabalenka on Saturday in Minsk to leave the Fed Cup final level at 1-1.

Earlier, CoCo Vandeweghe beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich in straight sets to put the United States into the lead.

Stephens has lost every match since winning the US Open title in September. In her first Fed Cup appearance of the year, she lost to Sabalenka 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 after one hour 49 minutes on court.

The 19-year-old Sabalenka, ranked 78th in the world, had never faced Stephens, the world number 13.

“I’m full of emotions,” Sabalenka said. “It was a very nervous match and I had to battle not only with my rival but against myself as well.

“I made plenty of mistakes but luckily I managed to claim this important rubber to level and it’s the most important thing about today’s match. Hopefully, tomorrow we will be able to perform better.”

The players traded breaks throughout the opening set but Sabalenka was slightly more precise taking a one-set lead in 37 minutes.

Stephens, 24, pulled fought back to 1-1 after one hour, 10 minutes on court breaking Sabalenka’s serve halfway through the second set.

The first six games of the deciding set went against serve, leaving the rivals level at three games all before Sabalenka produced the deciding break in the 10th game sealing her victory on the fourth match point.

Vandeweghe beat Sasnovich 6-4, 6-4 in the opener.

“That’s my job as number one singles player to get ourselves on board in the first match,” world number 10 Vandeweghe said.

“I started perfect both sets with early breaks but it wasn’t easy to close out on both occasions as Aliaksandra was very motivated and played really well today.”

Vandeweghe, this season’s Australian Open and US Open semi-finalist, looked in command from the start on the hard court in the packed Minsk Chizhovka 8,000-seat arena peppering her opponent with shots from the baseline.

The 25-year-old American started the rubber with an immediate break clinching a 2-0 lead, which she confidently kept to take the opening set in 45 minutes.

The players traded breaks early in the second set but Vandeweghe, playing with slightly more accuracy, went 3-1 up.

Sasnovich, ranked 87th in the world, fought back and pulled the scores level at 4-4. Vandeweghe responded by breaking again in the ninth game and then held her serve to win the set and the match.

The final will conclude on Sunday with the reverse singles followed by the potentially decisive doubles rubber.

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