Rinaldi preps to
lead youthful U.S. at Fed Cup
Arthur Kapetanakis | February 6, 2019
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Fresh off the Australian Open and the Australian swing on the tennis calendar, the U.S. Fed Cup team now prepares to face the Aussies in the opening round of World Group play. Both teams have arrived in Asheville, N.C., where the U.S. Cellular Center will host the weekend tie.
The Americans return to Asheville exactly one year after defeating the Netherlands in 2018 first-round play, though it is a new-look U.S. team on this occasion, with no returners from a year ago. Also changed is Team USA’s status as defending champions; after falling short to the Czech Republic in last year’s final, the most successful team in Fed Cup history is out to reclaim the title for a record 19th time.
For U.S. Captain Kathy Rinaldi, who named world No. 17 Madison Keys, No. 23 Danielle Collins, No. ADVERTISEMENT 37 Sofia Kenin and doubles No. 13 Nicole Melichar to her squad, no added motivation is needed.
“It doesn’t change my mindset,” she said of last year’s disappointment. “We’re here to compete. We’re here to have each other’s backs, be a real team and do the best we can to represent the United States.”
Rinaldi’s young team—Collins and Melichar are the elder stateswomen at 25—faces the tall task of following in the footsteps of the Williams sisters, who competed in Asheville last year.
“We’ve been so spoiled with Venus and Serena carrying the torch for so long and doing so much for American tennis, for women, for tennis, in general,” Rinaldi said. “It’s a great opportunity for these young players, and it’s a really exciting time in American tennis because we have so many young players coming up.”
Keys, who debuted in 2014 and holds a 4-3 Fed Cup record across singles and doubles, joins Kenin, who was thrown into the fire for the 2018 final, as the only two Americans with previous Fed Cup match experience. Both Collins and Melichar were also named to that final team for their Fed Cup initiations, but neither took the court for competitive action.
“Their first Fed Cup match ever, and they stepped up into a final,” Rinaldi said. "That was a lot to ask, playing in the Czech Republic against a very dominating team. … I think they’ve gained a lot of experience.”
Collins, despite her lack of experience at the top level, is battle-tested after playing four years of college tennis and graduating from the University of Virginia in 2016. Entering just her third full season on the WTA Tour, Collins stormed to the semifinals at the 2018 Australian Open in her Melbourne main-draw debut. While she might be the most in-form member of the squad, it is the 23-year-old Keys who comes in as the leader, according to Rinaldi. A 2017 US Open finalist and twice a Slam semifinalist, Keys put the U.S. into the 2018 final with the clinching victory in what was a 2-1 tie against France.
The Australians, for their part, named an even younger team, with 22-year-old Ashleigh Barty as the centerpiece. Ranked No. 13 in singles and No. 6 in doubles, Barty is the tie’s highest-ranked player in both categories. Daria Gavrilova, 24, is the only other Top-100 player for the visitors at No. 47. She is also the oldest member of an Australian team that is rounded out by Priscilla Hon, Kimberly Birrell and Astra Sharma.
It is the first appearance in the World Group for Australia since 2015, the level at which Captain Alicia Molik and her team feel they belong.
“We have had to fight the last few years to get back to this level and to have a genuine chance to win the Fed Cup again,” Molik said. “It’s incredibly exciting.”
With Barty reaching the Australian Open singles quarterfinals, Birrell reaching Round 3 and Sharma finishing as a mixed doubles finalist, the Australians are full of belief that they can secure the nation's eighth title.
“Confidence is something you can’t buy,” said Molik. “Our players have earned it. They have been working really hard.”
While their recent success occurred back in Australia, in front of the famously boisterous Australian fans, Molik expects her charges to continue their winning ways in front of the American crowd.
“I think it brings out the competitive edge in everyone. It’s a good thing, and it’s healthy," she said, adding, “I heard there are a lot of Aussies in Asheville.”
Molik singled out Collins and Keys for specific praise, noting Collins’ impressive fight and character, as well as the “big and dangerous, quick, fast, explosive game” of Keys. It will be up to them to keep any Australian fans in the crowd quiet this weekend and give the locals reason to cheer.
As for Rinaldi, she’s expecting a loud crowd in support of the home side and urged the fans to get behind her team.
“The players feel the support,” she said. “I’d tell the fans to wear your Red, White and Blue. Come out and support us hard because the players feel that and it really does make a difference.”
The opening-round tie begins at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, Feb. 9, with two singles matches. The draw will take place at 12 p.m. ET Friday.