WORCESTER - Former world No. 1 Venus Williams made her triumphant return to competitive tennis yesterday at the DCU Center in the final match of a Fed Cup Group II best-of-five series against Belarus.
Williams had not played in a sanctioned event since the US Open last August, during which she announced that she had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue among other symptoms.
Williams teamed with world No. 1 doubles player Liezel Huber to defeat Anastasiya Yakimova and Darya Kustova, 6-1, 6-2, showing that, at 31, she still has plenty of magic left in her racket.
The situation couldn’t have unfolded any better for Williams as the US team already had clinched victory after her sister, Serena, and Christina McHale won both of their matches to put the hosts ahead, 4-0, entering the final match.
“If you can’t beat them, then get them on your own side,’’ Huber said about Venus Williams to The Tennis Channel immediately after the win. “It was really so much fun. This is so special for me to play with Venus this first match back.’’
The DCU Center crowd of 2,278 gave Venus Williams a warm welcome, with one fan yelling, “Welcome back, Venus!’’ as she took the court.
“It was perfect conditions,’’ said Venus. “It was great playing with Liezel because she believes she can win, she’s going to go for it. It takes pressure off me. I’ve been in situations where I’ve played with a partner, and they didn’t handle the situation well.’’
The US team won the toss, and Venus elected to serve first, reaching as high as 118 miles per hour on her serve as she and Huber jumped to a 1-0 lead.
The 6-foot-1-inch Williams worked in an emphatic overhand slam midway through the first set after a long volley between Huber and Yakimova.
“She played really well,’’ Yakimova said of Williams. “She returned well.’’
The United States fell behind, 2-0, in the second set, but won six consecutive games to clinch the match.
Although Venus isn’t sure when she’ll be able to return to singles action, she said her treatments have started taking effect and she’s on the right track.
“The big push for me is the Olympics this year, so I can get back on the court and get my ranking up,’’ she said. “It’s just about my body cooperating. It’s about being able to play matches in a row. Right now, I’m not sure how much I can do with that, but we’ll see.’’
Serena Williams was able to joke about the fate of her first racket of the day after dominating the final two sets of a clinching 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 victory over Yakimova.
“The ground lifted up to my racket, I don’t know how it happened,’’ a smiling Serena said after the match. “I don’t recommend it.’’
The racket was destroyed after Yakimova, who had trailed, 4-1, in the first set, won a marathon game and then swept the next game at love. Yakimova went on to tie the set at 4-4, drop a game, and then take another three games in a row.
“It wasn’t my best day, that’s for sure,’’ Serena said.
In the second set, Williams resurrected her near-flawless game, and went on to prevail. McHale defeated Darya Kustova, 6-0, 6-1.
McHale and Serena Williams won opening-round matches Saturday.
The victory allowed the United States to advance to a playoff in April against a country to be determined, with the winner of that tie advancing to the Fed Cup I competition next year and a chance to win the cup.
Serena caught a break when Belarus captain Tatiana Poutchek decided that world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who withdrew just before the start of Saturday’s play with a back injury, could not play yesterday either.
“The injury is pretty serious, and we didn’t want to risk putting her on the court,’’ said Poutchek.