Putting together a Federation Cup team is akin to fielding a lineup in almost any sport.
You find the best players, who are currently playing the best, who have earned the right to be out there, and you put them on the court.
For United State Fed Cup first-time captain Kathy Rinaldi, that means Coco Vandeweghe, Shelby Rogers, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lauren Davis.
Rinaldi selected her team last week during a stop at Saddlebrook Resort, which will host the Federation Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Semifinal this weekend in front of what could be a sellout crowd.
A temporary 3,500-seat stadium will be constructed around one of the resort’s Har-Try Classic Green Clay courts.
Kevin O’Connor, president of Saddlebrook International Sports, said Saddlebrook’s reputation, combined with a tennis community buoyed by active USTA programs at Hunter’s Green, Tampa Palms, Arbor Greene and West Meadows, made the area the perfect choice to host the event.
“This is the highest level of team tennis,’’ says O’Connor. “This is like what most of the local community does with the USTA team tennis. Imagine one of the best communities in the U.S. for organized tennis. To have the pinnacle of team events in your backyard, it’s a no brainer and very exciting.”
The best-of-five match series begins on Saturday with two singles matches beginning at 11:30 a.m.. Then, on Sunday, the teams will play two reverse singles matches beginning at 10:30 a.m., as well as the doubles match.
The semifinal showdown will feature one team, the U.S., trying to reclaim its former glory. The 17-time champion hasn’t won the Fed Cup since 2000.
One the other hand, the defending champ Czech Republic is trying to maintain its status as the best women’s team in the world, as winners of five of the last six titles.
The U.S. is 39-6 all-time in Fed Cup ties (or matches) played at home, and is 147-36 overall.
“The atmosphere for these matches will be electric,’’ Rinaldi says. “There’s something about playing for your country that brings out the best in the players. To see the fans, with their faces painted, the colored wigs… to hear the national anthem, there’s nothing like it.”
A few weeks ago, Rinaldi, whose son Duke Stunkel Jr. is an outfielder for the University of South Florida baseball team, said her team was the clear underdog. But, that may have changed once the Czech Republic revealed it would be sending an inexperienced lineup of Fed Cup reserves.
Already without two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who is still recovering from a December knife attack during a burglary that left her with an injured left hand, the Czechs also go without the other three players who led them to the Fed Cup title last year.
World No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, No. 18 Barbora Strycova and No. 2 doubles player Lucie Safarova have all declined to play, citing minor injuries or scheduling issues.
In their place, the Czech Republic is sending Pliskova’s twin sister Kristyna and Marketa Vondrousova, who will be making their Fed Cup debuts, and Katerina Siniakova and Denia Allertova, who have played one Fed Cup doubles match.
Siniakova is the highest rated of the Czechs, at No. 38, while Pliskova is No. 54. Allertova (107) and Vondrousova (233) are outside of the Top 100.
Ratings matter less, however, when you are playing for your country, Rinaldi says. Last year, the Netherlands, without a single player in the top 100, beat four-time champion Russia, which was competing with three players in the top 35, including Maria Sharapova.
Started in 1963 as the women’s version of the men’s Davis Cup, Federation Cup tennis is the world’s largest annual international team competition in women’s sports, as roughly 100 teams from across the globe compete. It is marked by patriotism and raucous, festive crowds who roundly cheer for their country, and the atmosphere is completely different from the typical intense quiet you might see on television. Loudly celebrating in between points is not only allowed, it is encouraged.
“You can really feel the enthusiasm,’’ Rinaldi said. “In Hawaii (for the U.S.’s 4-0 quarterfinal win over Germany), the fans were loud and behind us, and we expect it to be the same way at Saddlebrook.”
Rinaldi, 49, reached the quarterfinals of the French Open as a 14-year-old and has trained at Saddlebrook. A three-time winner on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour, and once ranked as high as No. 7 in the world, Rinaldi was working in player development for the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) when she was tasked with directing the Fed Cup team back to the top of the international heap after years of struggling.
Despite American tennis boasting the likes of Serena Williams, arguably the greatest player of all-time (and 16-1 in Fed Cup action), her sister Venus and more than a dozen top-100-ranked players, its shortcomings for more than a decade in the Fed Cup competition have been magnified in recent years by the absence of the top American women, mainly Serena and Venus currently ranked Nos. 2 and 12 respectively.
Even without the Williams sisters, or No. 10 Madison Keys, Rinaldi has secured the remaining top Americans. Vandeweghe is No. 24, Davis is 36 and Rogers is 49, moving up three spots after beating the top-seeded Keys and reaching the quarterfinals at the WTA’s Charleston stop April 3-5. Mattek-Sands is the No. 1 doubles player in the world,
“You want to try to find those players that are playing their best at the moment,’’ Rinaldi said. “You want to find players that you believe in, and American tennis has a lot of really good players and a lot that are playing really well right now. We currently have 18 in the top 100. That’s quite a number. Women’s tennis has really stepped up.”
The animated and fiery Vandeweghe, certain to be one of the crowd favorites this weekend, is playing the best tennis of her career.
She reached a career-high rating of No. 20 in the world earlier this year after her 2017 Australian Open, where she defeated then-world No. 1 Angelique Kerber before falling to Venus Williams in the semis.
Vandeweghe has won two WTA titles, and a doubles title as well, when she teamed with Mattek-Sands to win at Indian Wells in 2016.
This will be Vandeweghe’s sixth Fed Cup tie (or team match), and she is 3-0 in doubles and 3-3 in singles.
Davis, who won her first WTA title this year, the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, is returning to Fed Cup for the first time since 2015, and is 1-0 in doubles and 0-1 in singles.
Rogers, who has reached two WTA quarterfinals this year, is playing in her second consecutive Fed Cup tie. She made her debut in Hawaii, teaming with Mattek-Sands in doubles.
Mattek-Sands became the No. 1-rated doubles player in the world in January with a win at Brisbane, followed by the Australian Open title. Mattek-Sands has 25 career WTA doubles titles, including the 2015 French Open and 2016 U.S. Open. She is undefeated in Fed Cup doubles action, winning all six of her matches, and is 2-6 in Fed Cup singles. She was on the last U.S. team to make the finals in 2010.
The winner at Saddlebrook advances to the Fed Cup final Nov. 11-12. It will meet the winner of the Belarus-Switzerland tie being played this weekend in Minsk, Belarus.
Tickets to the action at Saddlebrook were going fast but still available as of our press time. To try and purchase, visit USTA.com/fedcup or call (888) 334-USTA (8782).