1999 Fed Cup debut
Ashley Marshall | January 31, 2020
Team USA’s upcoming Fed Cup qualifying match against Latvia just feels different to other ties. Of course, these things tend to happen when you have two of the most in-demand players in the world joining forces for the first time.
Earlier this month, the U.S. named 23-time major singles champion Serena Williams and Fed Cup rookie and teen sensation Coco Gauff to the same team for the first time.
Williams, who will turn 39 later this fall, will be playing her 11th tie since debuting as a 17-year-old back in 1999. Should she play singles, she would be the oldest U.S. woman to ever play singles in Fed Cup. By contrast, Gauff, born in 2004, would be the second youngest American woman to ever play in the competition.
It’s a rare meeting of generations at opposite ends of their careers, and it could be historic. ADVERTISEMENT While Gauff is widely expected to be a factor on the national team over the next decade or more, there’s always the potential that this tie, win or lose, could be Serena’s last.
Serena doesn't have anything left to prove—in all honesty, she hasn’t for a while now. But where did her Fed Cup career all begin?
Williams made her professional debut in October 1995 in Quebec, but with age restrictions in place, she didn't play her second tournament until Indian Wells almost 18 months later. She qualified for the main draw of her first pro tournament in Moscow in October 1997, and she won her first career main-draw match in Chicago the following week, when she beat world No. 27 Elena Likhovtseva, No. 7 Mary Pierce and No. 4 Monica Seles in back-to-back-to-back matches.
Her run in Chicago propelled her into the Top 100 for the first time in her career, and she finished 1997 ranked No. 99 in the world.
Serena made her Grand Slam singles debut at the 1998 Australian Open and went on to make the fourth round in Paris and the third round at both Wimbledon and the US Open that year. Now firmly entrenched as a fast-rising star in American tennis, the stage was set for her to suit up in the red, white and blue. Or was it?
Fed Cup 1999
In February 1999, the USTA and U.S. captain Billie Jean King named Serena and Venus to the 10-player squad, with the final roster for the tie against Croatia to be named no later than April 7.
Back then, the captains would choose a roster from which they would select players for the individual ties. Venus had previously been named to the U.S. squad in 1995—a year after turning pro at age 14—and again in 1998—after reaching the US Open final in her Flushing Meadows debut. Serena had been named to the 1998 squad after her first full season, which saw her win mixed doubles titles in both London and New York. Despite being added to those earlier rosters, however, neither sister was selected to a team.
That all looked set to change in 1999, with media widely expecting both sisters to represent Team USA in April's quarterfinal. But between being placed on the U.S. roster on Feb. 26 and the official squad announcement for the Croatia tie on April 6, King said there had been confusion over whether the sisters would be able to play, especially with Serena, who had a lingering knee injury.
On March 31, the tie against Croatia was moved from Kosovo in former Yugoslavia to the U.S. amid NATO air strikes in Europe. Hamburg, Germany, had been considered as a neutral venue, but the tie was eventually moved to the Raleigh Racquet Club in Raleigh, N.C.
With the Williams sisters' appearance in doubt, that opened the door for King to select Monica Sales to the four-player roster. King said that she would not have picked Seles to play in either Kosovo, located south of where Seles was born and raised in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, or Hamburg, where she was attacked by a fan in 1993, but that she was comfortable choosing her to play in the U.S.
Seles was indeed named to King’s team on April 6, along with Chanda Rubin, Lindsay Davenport and Lisa Raymond. Neither Venus nor Serena were selected. On a media call announcing the team, King said she had positive phone calls with both Venus and Serena and that she hoped they would be available for future ties.
King had connected with the sisters through Pam Shriver, who served as Venus’ adviser in the Partners in Success mentorship program. Serena’s mentor was Zina Garrison, King told reporters, saying both women had expressed an interest in playing for their country, in Fed Cup and the Olympics, although there was some confusion over the eligibility requirements. King spoke with each teen for 30 minutes and said the calls had gone well.
After Seles and Rubin led the U.S. to a 5-0 sweep of Croatia, attention turned to the semifinal tie against Italy, to be played on the red clay of the Ancona Tennis Association in the seaport city of Ancona on the Adriatic coastline.
Venus committed to playing on June 27, and Serena was named to the team less than two weeks later, each with the understanding that they needed to make themselves available if they wanted to be considered for the Sydney Olympics just 14 months away.
The sisters joined Seles and Mary Joe Fernandez for the trip to Italy. Venus and Seles were tabbed to play singles, with Serena expected to make her Team USA debut in doubles with Venus.
But things didn’t exactly go to plan for King’s squad. While Venus, who had celebrated her 20th birthday five weeks earlier, was a winner in her debut, a 6-2, 6-3 victor over Rita Grande, Seles took the first loss of her Fed Cup career, falling to Silvia Farina Elia, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
Seles had been diagnosed with tendinitis in her right arm, and she said that soreness led to her changing her grip, which, in turn, led to six blisters on her left hand. Seles had spent the week before the tie swimming daily in the Adriatic in a bid to heal the blisters, but to no avail.
Seles’ defeat, which snapped a perfect 11-0 record, gave King interesting decisions to make going into Day 2 of play, with a spot in the final up for grabs.
Venus defeated Farina Elia, 6-1, 6-1, in just 51 minutes, holding serve to love in five games and never being threatened as she staked the U.S. to a 2-1 lead. After a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay and with Seles unavailable, King turned to her other rookie, 17-year-old Serena, to try to close out the tie.
In a precursor of things to come throughout her storied career, Serena was emphatic. She toppled Grande, 6-1, 6-1, in 50 minutes—the same scoreline as her sister in her debut, but one minute faster—and sent the U.S. back to the final for the first time since 1996.
“See what happens when I play Fed Cup? I play my best tennis,” Serena told reporters after the match. “I just played so much above her, totally out of control.”
For good measure, the Williamses, who were traveling internationally without their parents for the first time in their careers, teamed up to win the dead doubles rubber against Tathiana Garbin and Adriana Serra Zanetti, 6-2, 6-2, to cap a perfect debut.
At 17 years, nine months old, Serena was the seventh teen, and the sixth youngest player, in U.S. Fed Cup history, behind only Jennifer Capriati, Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger, Lindsay Davenport and Jeanne Evert.
The headlines and plaudits soon followed in papers across the U.S. the following morning. “Williamses steal Fed Cup spotlight,” read the Chicago Sun Times. “Williams sisters boost U.S.,” proclaimed The Washington Times. “Sister act in Fed Cup,” said The Boston Globe.
We all know what came next. Serena went on to win the first of her 23 Grand Slam women’s singles titles at the 1999 US Open on Sept. 11. Eight days later, she celebrated with Venus and Team USA after helping the U.S. to the 1999 Fed Cup title against Russia at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium in Stanford, Calif.
As for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney? Both sisters qualified, with Venus winning gold in singles and then teaming up with Serena to also capture gold in doubles.
The rest, as they say, is history. Serena is now a perfect 13-0 in singles play, one of only two U.S. women to play that many matches without a loss. Should she win two matches in Everett next weekend, she would equal Martina Navratilova’s 15-0 record and move into a three-way tie for singles wins with Navratilova and Seles. Only Venus (21), King and Davenport (26) and Chris Evert (40) have more.
As is often the case, King’s words from two decades ago still ring true today.
“It’s fortunate that we have so much depth and our top players support the team,” King said in 1999. “With the Williamses aboard … we could have another dream team to win our 16th title.”
With Serena and Gauff joining Australian Open finalist Sofia Kenin and 2017 Fed Cup champions Alison Riske and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in Everett, another dream team could well be in the making.