On the face of it, this weekend's U.S.-Belarus Fed Cup tie in Worcester, Mass. seems like a strictly minor league event in a town whose major sporting teams are the Tornadoes (baseball), the Sharks (hockey) and the New England Surge, an indoor football team that will not be playing indoors Sunday.
At least not this Sunday, in Indianapolis.
The tie is a World Group II first-rounder, which in tennis parlance means it's a struggle between two teams hoping to make it back into the elite major league World Group. Significantly, this is the first time the U.S. has fallen out of the top tier since the inception of Fed Cup as we now know it, in 1963.
Why, then, does it seem so important?
Well, for a few reasons, starting with the fact that Venus and Serena Williams are playing. They haven't appeared together in Fed Cup since 2007. That detail tends to pall alongside the fact that Venus has played all of a dozen matches since the beginning of the year -- which wouldn't be so bad if the year in question were this one. But it's not. It's 2011.
Closing in on age 32, which is positively Methuselah for a tennis player, Venus is also still battling the symptoms and effects of an autoimmune-system disease from which she suffers, Sjogren's syndrome.
The deck is stacked heavily against her, so even the most ardent Williams sisters fan is probably best off setting aside his or her hopes of seeing Venus loping across a singles court again. It would be a victory of sorts if she were able to play even in the doubles, although U.S. captain Mary Jo Fernandez has made clear why Venus was nominated for this team.
"Just to have her around is a big motivator for the rest of your team. It's a big excitement," Fernandez said at the official presser the other day. "She was itching to get out there to hit that first ball. I think that goes such a long way. The attitude, everybody seeing it, seeing the desire, the determination, the intensity -- it rubs off."
Whatever Venus does, Serena will be under a lot of pressure, because the No. 1 player for Belarus is newly crowned Australian Open champion and newly minted world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. Serena, who also passed the milestone of 30 some time ago, says she's still nursing a sore ankle and needs this matchup like she needs a hole in the head.
Serena played just two dozen matches in 2011 (but she won titles at Stanford and Toronto), and injured that ankle in Brisbane early this year. It caused her to pull out of her third-round match before she hit a ball. At the Australian Open, she was still hobbled and insolently knocked off in the fourth round by the No. 56 player in the world, Ekaterina Makarova.
Of course, this is Serena. When she was asked by the press in Worcester how it might feel, having been a former No. 1, to go up against the new No. 1, she seemed edgy. "Yeah, I feel fine," she shot back. "I played a lot of No. 1s. It doesn't change anything."
And she said, "The ankle is better. It's better than it was last week, and two weeks ago."
Unfortunately, a U.S. loss in this minor league clash will undoubtedly be interpreted as part of the death spiral of American tennis -- perhaps even the tipping point in the process, given what the Williams sisters have meant and accomplished. That the slide has been downhill for some time now is only surprising to those who haven't been paying attention.
Still, given what Azarenka has been through these past three weeks, it's not the worst time for Serena to have to play her, especially with the Fed Cup home-field advantage. If Serena can have a good weekend and Fernandez decides to use fast-rising, gritty No. 36 Christina McHale -- either as a starter or substitute -- the U.S. could pull this one out.
McHale has had better results than either potential No. 2 for Belarus, and if the tie comes down to the fifth and deciding rubber, you have to like the U.S.'s chances in the doubles. Liezel Huber is the No. 1 doubles player in the world; she and anyone make a formidable team. The other option, of course, is the team of ... Venus and Serena.
It's almost enough to make you feel good about U.S. tennis. The operative word being "almost."