TO SET TONE ON FED CUP DAY 1
Ashley Marshall | November 9, 2017
MINSK, Belarus – Top-ranked American Coco Vandeweghe will look to set the tone for the weekend when she opens up the Fed Cup final against Belarus' No. 2 player Aliaksandra Sasnovich on Saturday.
Sloane Stephens will round out Day 1 against the highest-ranked Belarusian, Aryna Sabalenka, before the reverse singles on Sunday, where the top players from each country play each other followed by a battle of the No. 2s.
Should Team USA win both matches on Saturday, Vandeweghe will have a chance to clinch the title when she faces Sabalenka on the second day of play at the Chizhovka Arena in the Belarusian capital. Stephens will face Sasnovich in the final singles match of the competition and, if necessary, a doubles match will determine whether the Fed Cup trophy spends the next 12 months in Belarus or returns to the U.S.
captain Kathy Rinaldi nominated Shelby Rogers and Alison Riske for her doubles team to play Vera Lapko and doubles specialist Lidziya Marozava, although the captains have the chance to make substitutions before the match.
"We're going to focus on ourselves," Rinaldi said after a medieval-themed draw ceremony at City Hall in Minsk, which saw an archer determine the order of play by shooting an arrow into one of four tennis balls attached to a target. "I know the players, we've done our homework. We're going to go out and do what we've done all year which is play good tennis but, more importantly, to compete.
"We're playing for our country, playing for pur team. It's an honor to play for your country and these girls really get up for it. This is exciting, this is what we play for all year to get to the final, now we have the opportunity and we're going to leave our hearts out there."
Neither Vandeweghe nor Sasnovich has lost a Fed Cup singles match this year, so the winner of the opening match will remain in contention to record the first unbeaten year since Petra Kvitova achieved the feat six years ago for the Czech Republic.
Similarly, Stephens has never faced Sabalenka. But she will have a chance to avenge a quarterfinal loss to Sasnovich in Seoul from 2015.
"I can't really speak on any of the matchups because I haven't played anyone on the team, but it's a great honor to play alongside these girls through the whole year, and to kind of put the cherry on top, make it to the final, compete with them this coming weekend," Vandeweghe said. "Doesn't matter if I play first, second, not at all. I'm out here for these girls, to compete as hard as I can. You play a match, you win, you lose. You just try your best."
Vandeweghe holds a 9-3 Fed Cup record and will enter as the favorite against Sasnovich, despite the Belarusian boasting 18 Fed Cup match victories. The head-to-head with Stephens and Sabalenka is just as intriguing, considering Stephens is coming off a win at the US Open in September and 19-year-old Sabalenka was the runner-up in Tianjin last week.
Should the final come down to the doubles match and neither captain makes a change to their lineup, the championship will be decided by four players who have played a total of 13 Fed Cup matches between them. Marozava, ranked No. 69 in the doubles standings, is arguably the most accomplished doubles player of the quartet, although each of the other three can hold their own.
"She's an awesome person," Riske said of Rogers. "The rest of this team is fantastic. We are in this together. It would be an honor to play with anyone on this team in the doubles. Hopefully we all have the opportunity. It will be a good weekend for all of us."
Rinaldi was staying tight-lipped about potential substitutions to the lineups, but she said she was confident in each member of Team USA and how they each matched up with the Belarus squad.
"Sabalenka has a big serve and is very powerful and Sasnovich is a very solid player," Rinaldi said of Belarus' nominated singles players. "They're two young, up-and-coming players. There should be some great matches. But Coco and Sloane, obviously coming off tremendous years, have a lot of confidence. They'll concentrate on their games. They have big serves and they're powerful and they'll look to play good, solid tennis and stay focused. That's the important thing.
"I believe in all four of the players and there are lots of different combinations we could play for the doubles, so we'll see how that goes throughout the weekend. We've been doing our homework since we knew we were going to be playing here back in April. I sat down with my coach Lisa Raymond and the private coaches that are here with the players as well and we put our heads together. We put a lot of great tennis minds together and we come up with simple, basic gameplans for the girls. We've done all our homework and now we're anxious and ready to get out there and play."
With the lineups and order of play set, the only variable left is how much home-court advantage Team Belarus will have. The 8,800-seat arena is sold out and, with the exception of a small American contingent, will be filled with a loud sea of red and green.
Added Rinaldi: "We've been speaking with the girls about the atmosphere and the crowd. All these girls have played internationally and at such a high level that they know what that's like, but we'll speak to them again about it. Obviously playing for your country, this crowd will be a little bit more passionate, a little bit more boisterous, but this is what these girls live on. They love that, it really excites them to play in front of that. We're excited."