US beats Belarus 5-0 to advance to Fed Cup playoff

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WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) -- Serena Williams and Christina McHale won singles matches and Venus Williams returned from a five-month layoff Sunday, sending the United States past Belarus 5-0 in the first round of the Fed Cup.

By blanking Belarus in World Group II, the Americans head to a playoff in April in hopes of playing their way back into the top tier of Fed Cup after getting bounced last year.

Venus Williams and Liezel Huber completed the shutout with a doubles victory, defeating Darya Kustova and Anastasiya Yakimova 6-1, 6-2. This was Williams' first sanctioned match since the opening round of the U.S. Open. She had been diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can cause fatigue and joint pain and forced her to withdraw from the Open.

McHale won in straight sets for the second consecutive day, beating Darya Kustova 6-0, 6-1 to put the U.S. up 4-0.

Serena Williams had already guaranteed a U.S. victory earlier in the day by defeating Anastasiya Yakimova 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. She led 4-1 in the first set before Yakimova surged back to take the lead. But Williams cruised through the last two sets.

Top-ranked Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, the Australian Open champion, sat out all four singles matches with a back injury.

In the first round of World Group play, Russia beat visiting Spain 3-2; Serbia won 3-2 at Belgium; Italy downed visiting Ukraine 3-2; and the Czech Republic won 4-1 at Germany.