Sloane Stephens picked up her first Fed Cup singles victory this past April in St. Louis
© Ron Angle
Day 1 hero Madison Keys fell in her singles match on Sunday to Caroline Garcia. She and Stephens then teamed to stage a comeback in doubles but came up just short.
© Ron Angle
By Sandra Harwitt, special to USTA.com
No matter the outcome, U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez is always proud of her players if they put their best foot forward.
And although the U.S. lost this weekend’s Fed Cup Play-off to France in a close 3-2 defeat, Fernandez was able to see the improvements in her young team. She relied on the 21-year-old Sloane Stephens and 19-year-old Madison Keys – two players touted for their bright futures in the game.
And while they didn’t pull off the win, they showed their true and loyal dedication to the cause.
“The girls did great,” Fernandez said. “They had great attitudes. They worked really hard. That’s all you can ask for: that determination and desire and will to keep going.”
In the end, however, the loss means the U.S. Fed Cup team will play its 2015 season in World Group II, competing to return to the World Group to take a shot at an 18th Fed Cup title in 2016. Only once before, in 2012, has the U.S. been relegated to World Group II action.
For a while it was looking promising for the U.S. on Sunday, as Sloane Stephens established a 2-1 lead for the squad. In the past, when the U.S led 2-1, it had an 8-3 record.
It was a very different Stephens who arrived on court on Sunday from the player who fell quickly to France’s Caroline Garcia, 6-3 6-2, on Saturday. Stephens had yet to win a Fed Cup singles match in two attempts and she was determined to finally deliver a victory to the team.
Playing against 78th-ranked Virginie Razzano – who was subbing for France’s No. 1 Alize Cornet, felled by a left adductor injury – Stephens dominated throughout, taking a confident 6-2, 6-4 victory that took all of 67 minutes.
“Yeah, I mean it’s awesome to get my first singles win; Madison got hers yesterday,” said a visibly thrilled Stephens. “[I’m] just excited to be here and competing out there.”
When asked if she approached the match differently against Razzano and whether she made any technical changes to her game, Stephens replied, “No, I just stayed really positive and I was jumping up and down, screaming all the time. I was being really annoying, like to myself. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I was just fighting for every point and it worked.”
Unfortunately, Keys couldn’t duplicate her winning result from Saturday in the second singles match, falling to the red-hot Garcia. To be fair, the 51st-ranked Garcia, making her Fed Cup playing debut this weekend, was astounding in winning three points – a feat even Fernanez couldn’t ignore.
“I like her game a lot,” Fernandez said of Garcia. “I’ve liked it for a long time. She’s much more disciplined now with her shot selection. She’s a great athlete. Now it’s all coming together.”
The 42nd-ranked Keys began with confidence and took a 2-0 lead. But Garcia recouped the service break in the fourth game and then, at 4-4, won eight of the next nine points to take the first set.
In the second set, Keys surrendered her serve in the sixth game to give Garcia a 4-2 lead and a platform to victory three games later.
“Caroline played really well,” Keys said. “She’s been playing well all weekend. I wasn’t moving nearly as well.”
Tied at 2-2, the weekend was going to go down to the wire in the fifth-and-decisive doubles match in which France eventually prevailed 6-2, 7-5. Both captains elected to team their singles players of the day – Keys with Stephens and Garcia with Razzano – hoping for the best.
“[I was] trying to go with the players that were playing into the competition and had big weapons, trying to impose their game on the French,” Fernandez said of choosing her team.
The French team instead blasted its way to a 5-1 lead in the first set, which pretty much put that in the books.
In the second set, Keys and Stephens fell behind 4-0, but even then they refused to surrender. They not only fought back even, but even briefly led 5-4 before the French duo won the final three games.
“Nearly a great comeback there being down a set and 4-love,” Fernandez said. “They started doing a really good job midway through the second set to feel their presence. But [the French] were too good.”
So with the conclusion going against the U.S., Fernandez and her young and enthusiastic team couldn’t hide their disappointment. But they also were ready to look ahead to what lies ahead, with an expectation of making a successful challenge.
“It leaves us fighting back to get into the World Group next year,” smiled Fernandez.