WASHINGTON, April 20, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
When the United States takes on France in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinals in Aix-en-Provence this weekend, the reigning Fed Cup champion Americans will be attempting to achieve back-to-back finals for the first time since finishing runner-up to Italy in 2009-10. It is the 14th time the U.S. and France have faced each other in Fed Cup play, so there is some history in this rivalry.
“We are really excited to be here,” said U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi, during a pre-draw press conference on Thursday. “Of course, we are here to win, and I’m sure they are, too.”
Although the Americans have dominated the French with an 11-2 head-to-head record going back to 1966 – their last win came in a 2010 World Group first round tie – France won the last meeting, 3-2, in the World Group playoffs at St. Louis in 2014. Now, Rinaldi’s U.S. roster for this weekend’s tie is very deep in talent – even without the Williams sisters, who competed against Serbia in the first round back in February. Team USA includes three Top 20 players – No. 9 Sloane Stephens, No. 13 Madison Keys, and No. 16 CoCo Vandeweghe, plus one of the best doubles players in the world in Bethanie Mattek-Sands, ranked No. 32.
Although this is the first time this group of American players have played together on the same team, it’s easy to see why they’re such an elite squad. Stephens is the reigning U.S. Open champion and playing in her sixth Fed Cup. Keys, who will be playing in her fourth tie, was a finalist at last year’s U.S. Open. Vandeweghe is a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist, who made Fed Cup history by going 8-0 in singles and doubles play in 2017. Mattek-Sands, who recently returned from a serious knee injury suffered at Wimbledon last summer, is a former World No. 1 doubles doubles player and also is 7-0 in Fed Cup doubles competition.
“We have three Top 20 players plus Bethanie, who is a former World No. 1 in doubles. So we are very happy with our team,” said Rinaldi. “I am very happy with all of the teams I have brought. We have a lot of great players and I believe in all of our American players, so I am very confident. As a captain, I am very fortunate to have so many players to choose from.”
Keys echoed her team captain’s thoughts. “Any time we get the opportunity to play on a team together with a group of friends, it’s always an amazing opportunity,” she said.
Meanwhile, French captain Yannick Noah‘s roster for the semifinal tie is thin on depth and will rely heavily on No. 20 Kristina Mladenovic, who is also ranked No. 14 in doubles. She will be joined by No. 122 Pauline Parmentier and No. 204 Amandine Hesse. France is looking to reach the finals for just the second time since 2005, but Rinaldi isn’t taking this tie lightly.
“France has a solid team. We can’t underestimate anyone on the French team,” said Rinaldi. “Fed Cup brings out a lot of emotions, especially when the players are playing for their country, and of course, they have the home crowd on their side. We will take every player on the French team seriously and be prepared.”
Friday afternoon’s draw ceremony (at 12:30 p.m. local time) will reveal who each team captain has nominated for the semifinal tie. Although Rinaldi didn’t tip her hand on Thursday when asked about her line-up, she emphasized that everyone on the U.S. team has a role. “Everyone is very supportive of one another. That’s why we’ve had so much success,” she said.
The U.S., which has won the Fed Cup championship a record 18 times, advanced to the semifinals with a 3-1 victory over the Netherlands in Asheville, North Carolina, thanks to two singles rubbers wins by Venus Williams. Two-time champion France moved into the semifinal round by ending Belgium’s seven-tie winning streak in Mouilleron le Captif with a 3-2 victory as Mladenovic won three rubbers – both of her singles and doubles with Hesse. It is the French’s third appearance in the semifinals in four years.
If there is an equalizer or advantage for the French, it’s the red clay surface they will face the Americans on at the indoor Arena Du Pays D’Aix. After all, playing on red clay is very natural for European players – not so much for the Americans. Wait a minute, Mattek-Sands was quick to point out. “I won the French Open twice (2015, 2017), so I actually like playing on clay,” she said. “It’s a little bit of an adjustment, but I think everyone is feeling pretty good on clay.”
Rinaldi suggested that regardless of surface, her expectations are the same, “and that’s for us to be united and have each other’s backs and support one another.
“I think the biggest challenge, obviously, is when you play an away match, you have the crowd. I think everyone here has experienced the French crowd. We’re excited for it. We’re here to win. We’re here to compete. Just another great opportunity.”
During an interview earlier in the week with FedCup.com, Vandeweghe expressed confidence that Team USA can make it to another final. “We have a lot of depth in our team. From the singles players all the way to doubles, I think we come together really well.
“It’s been working really well for the last couple of years of sacrifice and team camaraderie. That really makes a difference for each and every tie and I think Team USA does a really good job of that.”
• Saturday’s start time will be 2 p.m. local time (noon GMT, 8 a.m. ET) with two singles rubbers. Sunday’s start time will be an hour earlier at 1 p.m. local time (11 a.m. GMT, 7 a.m. ET) with two reverse singles rubbers and the doubles rubber. A revised schedule for Sunday may take place if either team clinches the tie in the third or fourth rubber.
• The U.S.-France semifinal winner will advance to the Fed Cup final, November 10-11, against the winner of the Germany-Czech Republic semifinal. Last November, the U.S. defeated Belarus, 3-2, in Minsk to win the 2017 Fed Cup title.