WASHINGTON, February 9, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
This weekend’s Fed Cup by BNP Paribas first-round tie between the United States and Australia at U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina, will feature a pair of Top 20 stars anchoring each team – No. 17 Madison Keys for the Americans and No. 13 Ashleigh Barty for the Aussies. It will also feature a pair of up-and-coming co-stars in supporting roles, in Sofia Kenin of the United States and Kim Birrell of Australia.
Kenin, ranked No. 37, left a lasting impression during last November’s Fed Cup final against champion Czech Republic that earned the 20-year-old Floridian an opportunity to return and be a part of the 2019 team – and, hopefully, make an impact. Many will remember Kenin’s last match at the O2 Arena in Prague, in her Fed Cup debut, in which she lost a 3-hour, 45-minute epic battle to Katerina Siniakova, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5, which clinched the 2018 Fed Cup title for the Czechs.
“Prague was something memorable. I’m never going to forget that,” said Kenin during Friday’s pre-tie press conference. “Only difference here is they’re going to be cheering for me instead of against me.”
Indeed, with lessons learned from last year’s Fed Cup experience, Kenin will have the home crowd behind her this time when she faces the 22-year-old Barty in Saturday afternoon’s first rubber. “It’s going to help me. Hopefully I can take the win for Team USA,” said Kenin.
Who’s excited and ready for Fed Cup?! 🇺🇸🆚🇦🇺!! Here we go TEAM USA ❤️ pic.twitter.com/fyuFxyI8FT
— Sonya Kenin (@SonyaKenin) 8. Februar 2019
Barty is coming off a remarkable quarterfinal run at last month’s Australian Open and was the first Australian female to advance that far at Melbourne in 10 years. Before that, she was a finalist at Sydney. In one previous head-to-head, Barty beat Kenin in straight sets on clay in Charleston, South Carolina, last year.
“There are no greater or better weeks in the year than when you get to wear Australia on your back and the green and gold,” said Barty. “I think it’s a bonus that I get to have someone of Mol’s (Alicia Molik’s) calibre sitting on the side of the court with me. We chat through everything. We leave no stone unturned in preparation and I know when I go out on the court, I trust myself.”
Australia team captain Alicia Molik said of Barty, “Ash obviously is our number one player. She’s had a wonderful summer, a great month.”
U.S. team captain Kathy Rinaldi praised Barty, too. “We know she’s very talented in singles and doubles,” she said. “Also starting off her year very strongly. I’m really not surprised.”
Meanwhile, Keys, 23, the top-nominated American, will face newcomer Birrell, ranked No. 157, in Saturday’s second singles rubber. Both are coming off of good performances at Melbourne. Keys reached the fourth round of the Australian Open while the 20-year-old Birrell was a pleasant surprise in advancing to the third round with a quality win over Donna Vekic of Croatia before losing to World No. 2 Angelique Kerber of Germany in straight sets. Earlier this season, she beat Daria Kasatkina of Russia in Brisbane and followed it with a win over Kristina Mladenovic of France in Sydney. Keys and Birrell have never played each other.
“Kim, to be honest with you, has been on fire,” said Molik. “She demonstrated during the Australian Open what level she’s at currently. … We think she can win.”
Birrell said belief does “incredible things” to athletes and tennis players. “I feel like I’ve had an awesome couple of months. I really feel like I’ve been playing at a consistent level day in, day out. I think I really proved to myself that this is the level I want to be at.”
On Sunday, the reverse singles will pair Keys against Barty followed by Kenin versus Birrell. Nominated for doubles were Danielle Collins and Nicole Melichar for the United States and Barty and Daria Gavrilova for Australia.
Rinaldi said that as soon as the 2018 Fed Cup ended last November, won by the Czech Republic 3-0 over the Americans, she was already preparing for this year. “I’m really excited to have these young ladies here with me,” she said. “We’re going to take it one match at a time, one tie at a time, and that’s all we can do.
“We’re just worrying about today. We’re prepared.”
Fed Cup Notes
• Saturday’s first rubber is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (6 p.m. GMT/London, 7 p.m. Central European, 5 a.m. AEDT Sunday). It is being broadcast by Tennis Channel in the United States and 9Gem in Australia. Live scoring of the tie will be available at fedcup.com.
• The United States is 9-5 all-time versus Australia and won their last meeting, 4-0, in the 2016 World Group playoff on outdoor clay in Brisbane. The U.S.-Australia winner will advance to the Fed Cup semifinals on April 20-21 against the winner of this weekend’s tie between Germany and Belarus.
• The Fed Cup returns to Asheville for the second straight year following last year’s U.S. 3-1 victory over the Netherlands in the first round.