There was no suspense and little drama today on the first day of the Fed Cup finals when a United States team featuring four of the world's top five players took a 2-0 lead over Russia in the best-of-five event.
Venus Williams beat Russia's Elena Likhovtseva, 6-3, 6-4, and Lindsay Davenport breezed past Elena Dementieva (No. 68), 6-4, 6-0, so the United States needs only one victory Sunday to claim its 16th Fed Cup title.
Nothing about Williams's win over Likhovtseva was particularly captivating. But Williams, in her first match since her disappointment at the U.S. Open, did her job today, putting away her opponent.
With a few exceptions, Williams's game lacked the blistering serves and jaw-dropping athleticism that have boosted her to the No. 3 ranking in the world. And she admitted as much, saying she was using this weekend to work on her game after losing to Martina Hingis in the semifinals in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. last week and watching sister Serena claim the Grand Slam title.
"I felt good today," Venus Williams said. "I was just working on a lot of things in my game."
Davenport needed just 55 minutes to down Dementieva, who was making her Fed Cup singles debut.
Is the U.S. team so good that Williams can afford to experiment on her game in the final? Well, yes. It's so stocked with talent that there's no room for the world's fifth-ranked player, Monica Seles, except on the sidelines.
The Russian team lacks such impressive credentials; the next best player after 17th-ranked Likhovtseva is Dementieva. Russia is missing its top-ranked player, No. 15 Anna Kournikova, because of a stress fracture. But Williams said that did not affect her.
"We know these girls can play well, and we definitely at the end of the week want to be holding up the Cup," she said.
That shouldn't be a problem if Williams can still win despite playing as flatly as she admitted she did.
"I think it was a little bit up-down--a lot of unforced errors," Williams said. "I didn't hit it the best I could, and I don't think she did either."
The subdued crowd of 4,000 at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium on Stanford University's campus finally got excited about the tennis--and apparently Williams did too--when Likhovtseva was serving up 4-3 in the second set, then lost the game with a pair of double faults. Likhovtseva's breakdown was punctuated by hitting an easy volley into the net.
"I still don't know what happened," Likhovtseva said. "It seemed like I was controlling the situation, but I didn't feel like I was."
Williams held serve to go up 5-4, winning the key point by smashing a blistering serve past her opponent.
In breaking Likhovtseva in the final game, Williams was at her best. She dropped an unhittable soft return just over the net. She tied up Likhovtseva with a forehand right at the Russian's feet, and for the winner, Williams ripped a back-handed passing shot down the right side. Williams grinned as she traded high-fives with her teammates and U.S. Coach Billie Jean King.
"I think it's a different competition than playing for yourself because, for sure, in a tournament you're playing just for yourself," Williams said. " . . . Here, it's a little bit different, it's more about a team."