Friendly fire for Barty, Azarenka in Fed Cup as Halep eyes final place
Ashleigh Barty will be overjoyed when doubles partner and two-time major winner Victoria Azarenka returns to the peak of her powers but hopes it won't be this weekend when Australia and Belarus clash for a place in the Fed Cup final.
Barty and Azarenka teamed up this season, making the doubles semi-finals at the prestigious Miami Open just days before the Australian clinched the singles title, a breakthrough which propelled the 23-year-old into the world's top 10.
Now Barty leads Australia's hopes of reaching a first Fed Cup final since 1993 when they face Azarenka's Belarus in Brisbane on Saturday and Sunday.
"I think the beauty of Vika and I is that we instantly gelled together," said Barty of 29-year-old Azarenka who is no stranger to success 'Down Under' having won the 2012 and 2013 Australian Open titles.
"She's obviously a player who loves the pressure situation. The tighter it gets, the better she gets. I'm sure it won't be long before she's back to her very best once again," added Barty, who boasts a Fed Cup record of 14 wins and just two losses.
However, Azarenka, now ranked at a modest 61, may be reserved for doubles duty only in the semi-final with number 10 Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich, ranked 35, likely to take the singles berths for 2017 runners-up Belarus.
Seven-time champions Australia will call upon either former US Open Samantha Stosur, who made her Fed Cup debut back in 2003, for singles despite the 35-year-old's ranking of 77 or 58th-ranked Daria Gavrilova.
In the weekend's other semi-final, Simona Halep eyes taking another step closer to adding a maiden Fed Cup winner's medal to her 2018 French Open crown when Romania face France in Rouen.
- 'Little miracle' -
Romania have equalled their best Fed Cup showing, having also made it to the semi-finals in 1973.
Having knocked out defending champions Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, world number two Halep is desperate to guide Romania into a first final -- and has been using manager Virginia Ruzici, who played in the 1973 team, as inspiration.
"Virginia played in that semi-final and I asked her about that experience and she told me," Halep, who has a 20-9 record in the competition, told fedcup.com.
"She was pretty relaxed in the past and not so stressed like us now."
Romania edged the Czechs 3-2 in an epic quarter-final at Ostrava secured by a three-set win in the decisive doubles by Irina-Camelia Begu and Monica Niculescu over Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova.
"It was the best moment and I was jumping around as I was so happy," recalled Halep, who will likely share singles duty with Mihaela Buzarnescu, ranked at 30.
Two-time champions France are bidding to reach the final for the sixth time and first since 2016, when they suffered a 3-2 defeat to the Czechs.
World number 21 Caroline Garcia, now back in favour after a two-year exile, leads the French team with Pauline Parmentier (world ranked 55) and Alize Cornet (58) vying for the second singles spot.
Cornet has already set the tone for the weekend by claiming France may need a "little miracle" to progress to the November final.
At Rouen (indoor, clay)
France v Romania
At Brisbane (outdoor, hard)
Australia v Belarus