WASHINGTON, February 14, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
The United States has won 18 Fed Cup titles, most of any nation since the largest annual international team event in women’s tennis launched back in 1963. However, the Americans are three years removed from their most recent crown, which came in 2017 over Belarus. Fortunately, there’s plenty of depth on this year’s team – and if last weekend is any indication, the U.S are definitely in the mix for this year’s Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Finals title. Team USA captain Kathy Rinaldi has options.
Team USA will join 11 others nations in Budapest from April 14-19 for the inaugural Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Finals, a new-look for the venerable World Cup of Tennis. Joining the third seed United States on indoor clay at the Laszlo Papp Sports Arena will be defending champion France, 2019 finalist Australia, wild card Czech Republic, and host country Hungary as well as Russia, Belarus, Belgium, Spain, Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland.
“As I said from the beginning, we are one team, one goal,” Rinaldi said after her team fought off a resurgent Latvia in doubles to garner a 3-2 victory, which earned the Americans advancement from last weekend’s Qualifiers in Kent, Wash. “Right now, we’re very happy to have won this match against tough opponents. They way they played, they could easily be contenders for Budapest, too.
“We should take a lot of confidence from this match, and we’re really looking forward to April.”
After the first night of the two-day tie, it appeared the United States would have an easy go of it. Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and 23-time Grand Slam singles winner Serena Williams won their rubbers against Anastasija Sevastova and Jelena Ostapenko, respectively, both in straight sets. However, on Saturday, the former French Open champion Ostapenko beat Kenin, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2, to prolong the tie. Then, Sevastova, once ranked as high as No. 11, beat long odds in defeating Williams, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (4), in the fourth rubber that alone lasted two hours and 25 minutes. It marked the first singles defeat in Fed Cup competition for Williams, after going 14-0.
When it came time for the decisive doubles rubber, Rinaldi rolled the dice and inserted Kenin to pair with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a five-time Grand Slam champions and former World No. 1 in doubles who has been a U.S. Fed Cup team mainstay for more than 10 years. The American captain made her decision to substitute Kenin for Alison Riske before the fifth rubber. In doing so, she reunited Mattek-Sands and Kenin. The pair lifted the trophy at the China Open, a WTA Premier Mandatory event, last fall. More recently, they reached the third round of the Australian Open last month.
“Moments like these … you’re going to remember forever,” Kenin said after she and Mattek-Sands took charge and beat Ostapenko and Sevastova 6-4, 6-0. “It was a tough (singles) match, but I was cheering Serena on very loud. I was going all out. I have never been nervous watching anyone, so I was really nervous for (her).”
Rinaldi, who has coached both Kenin and Mattek-Sands in previous Fed Cup ties, was well aware of the recent success the two have enjoyed.
“Sonya [Kenin’s nickname] and Bethanie obviously have played together quite a bit and had some success recently,” Rinaldi said. “I reminded Sonya that back in junior Fed Cup [in 2014], we were playing our qualifying, and the last match was 2-2, and we came down to the doubles.
“I put Sonya in, and she was very clutch in that match and got us actually to the finals of [Junior] Fed Cup in Mexico, which she was on the team and we went on to win. Bethanie has a world of experience in doubles. She’s been on my teams before, so I knew we were all in good hands.”
After winning the tie-determining doubles rubber, Mattek-Sands remarked, “Team USA came in with a lot of momentum. We won both matches (Friday) and as a doubles player here in the last match of the day, I didn’t know whether it was going to count for anything or if it was all coming down to it. I was ready for both situations. Either way, I was also bringing my energy to cheer on my teammates and bring it on the court. I was ready.
”This is what we train for, representing the Stars and Stripes. The energy out there was amazing. For ne, it’s fun to play out there in moments like that in front of a crowd like that with teammates like this cheering me on bench.”
🇺🇲 USA 3-2 Latvia 🇱🇻
— Fed Cup Finals (@FedCupFinals) February 9, 2020
Looking ahead to April, the U.S. will be paired in Group C with Spain and Slovakia, the eighth and ninth seeds. “I think if you’re from the USTA, you couldn’t have picked a better group for the U.S. to fall in,” Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport, an 11-time U.S. Fed Cup team member, said earlier this week on Tennis Channel Live, broadcast in the U.S. “They’ll play against Spain and Slovakia. Those are two very winnable ties for Team USA. There’s a lot of great players and teams. I really like where the U.S. is in that draw.”
With seven Top 50 players plus No. 51 Coco Gauff and doubles specialist Mattek-Sands to draw from, Team USA is rich in talent. The list of American players who weren’t in Washington last weekend is both formidable and impressive: No. 12 Madison Keys, No. 29 Amanda Anisimova, No. 35 Sloane Stephens and No. 50 Danielle Collins. Much speculation centers around whether Rinaldi will include Williams on the roster in Budapest.
“It will be interesting to hear what Serena’s plans are,” said Davenport. “She looked very invested over the weekend in Washington. That was one of the great moments, especially when the tie was over. Obviously, she was noticeably disappointed when she lost her match, but she was out there cheering in the fifth rubber. She was on court.
“That looked like a really cohesive unit that played in Washington. As a player, you also have to look long term. Do you want to be in Europe on the 20th of April when you have the French Open five or six weeks away and you’re still looking ahead to Wimbledon? I think now that they’ve qualified, Team USA, they all have to look at their schedule and see if it makes sense for them as well.”
Certainly, there are plenty of talented players to choose from for Rinaldi to fill out her Fed Cup Finals roster – and she has until March 17, when team nominations are due. “You go down the rankings and you have Kenin and Serena and you’ve got Madison, you’ve got Sloane and Alison Riske. There are so many options for Captain Rinaldi,” said Davenport. “That’s what you love when you’re captaining a nation. You don’t want to have just one or two players, you want to have a bunch to be able chose from.
“Coco Gauff is obviously the future of Fed Cup. It was great to see her and for her to get experience in Washington. She didn’t make it on to the match court, but she’ll have many, many chances in the future. Who knows? Maybe, she ends up playing in Budapest. We’ll see.”