Steady Stephens Levels U.S.-Switzerland Fed Cup Playoff Tie After Keys Falters

Sloane Stephens (photo: Daniel Shirey/USTA)

SAN ANTONIO, April 21, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

The United States came into its Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group playoff tie against Switzerland without either Serena Williams or Venus Williams on its roster. However, the Americans could point to two quality Top 20 players in No. 8 Sloane Stephens and No. 14 Madison Keys, which figured to give them an edge against the Swiss. Plus, they would be playing on home soil at Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio, Texas, backed by a good crowd. Everything, it seemed, favored Team USA.

Not everything went according to plan on Saturday.

First, it was a rough day for Keys, who just two weeks ago lifted the trophy at the WTA Premier Volvo Car Open in Charleston, South Carolina, on HarTru green clay. Nothing seemed to go right for the 24-year-old from Rock Island, Illinois, in the opening rubber against Victorija Golubic, who was elevated to Swiss No. 1 in the absence of Belinda Bencic. The World No. 20 did not make herself available for Switzerland this weekend in order to be in Stuttgart, Germany, where she will compete in the WTA Premier Porsche Tennis Grand Prix starting Monday.

It didn’t seem to matter to the overachieving Swiss team that they didn’t have their best player. That’s because the 80th-ranked Golubic pulled off a tremendous upset of Keys, 6-2, 6-3, that lifted the Swiss to a 1-0 lead. Right away, the U.S. had dug itself into a deep hole.

“Remember, you’re not just playing for yourselves. You’re playing for your team, you’re playing under your country’s flag,” said Tennis Channel analyst Chanda Rubin, who played on five U.S. Fed Cup teams between 1995 and 2004. “You can either embrace it or be smothered by the weight and pressure of it. I think Madison just couldn’t get past the pressure.”

Throughout much of the one hour and 21 minute opening rubber, Keys’ timing was off. The American committed an uncharacteristic 47 unforced errors – including 23 in the first set – while hitting just 13 winners. She was also 0-for-4 in break-point opportunities.

Meanwhile, Golubic played carefree – exhibiting a nifty one-fisted backhand – and as the match wore on, she played the role of spoiler, which seemed to quiet much of the pro-American crowd inside Freeman Coliseum. Although Golubic hit just 14 winners and 27 unforced errors, she maintained her composure. The Swiss broke Keys four times in 11 tries and won 72 percent of her first-serve points.

“I feel so great right now. I had the support of my team,” said Golubic, 26, during an on-court interview after her win. “It felt so good to be on court today. I’m really excited.”

As Golubic neared victory, she said noticed her teammates doing the wave and “being crazy” as they cheered for her. “When I’m on the court, I see them and my opponent and that’s it,” she said.

It put pressure on the 26-year-old Stephens to level the tie and give the U.S. a chance to avoid going into Sunday being down 2-0. She came through with a steady hand. Stephens defeated 29-year-old Swiss veteran Timea Bacsinszky, 6-4, 6-3, in one hour and 35 minutes to square the tie at 1-1.

Stephens outpointed Bacsinszky 68-56 and took advantage of her opponent’s 47 unforced errors. She converted seven of 16 break-point opportunities, too.

“Obviously everyone knows we’re playing for more than ourselves, we’re playing for our country,” said Stephens, who will face Golubic in Sunday’s first reverse singles match. “You have to dig, find the energy, muster it up, fight as much as you can, make sure you get those games.

“We’re level at 1-all. We just have to get back out there tomorrow and try to get the win.” 

For the U.S. to pull out the tie and avoid relegation to World Group II, it needs to win two of the three remaining rubbers (which includes two singles matches plus doubles, with Sofia Kenin and Jessica Pegula at the ready for Team USA, if needed).

U.S. team captain Kathy Rinaldi put things in perspective after Saturday’s mixed results. “All credit to Switzerland. Golubic came out and played a very solid match. Sloane picked up her teammate. That’s what we do. We’re here to have each other’s backs.”