RINALDI EYES NEW CHALLENGE
AS 2018 FED CUP BEGINS
Ashley Marshall | February 6, 2018
Team USA begins the defense of its Fed Cup title this weekend, but a new year brings new challenges for the reigning champs.
U.S. Captain Kathy Rinaldi says while it’s important to celebrate the success of one year ago, it’s just as imperative to look ahead and focus on the next chapter. Winning the title was one thing; keeping the trophy is another battle.
“We feel very blessed to be in this position,” Rinaldi said. “Last year was an amazing year and just an incredible journey – one that I’m going to treasure forever with all six players. It’s something they can all be proud of.
“But that was 2017, and now we’re into 2018. The campaign last year was to bring the Fed Cup home, and this year the campaign is to keep the Fed Cup home.”
That journey begins in Asheville, N.C., at the US Cellular Center against a Dutch team that enters as the underdog and hasn’t been to the final since 1997.
Rinaldi knows not to overlook any opponent. And if there were any questions about the ability of The Netherlands to cause an upset in the Tar Heel State, Rinaldi’s team selection should leave no doubt about how seriously she is taking the threat.
Her squad features 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams, seven-time major winner Venus Williams and 2018 Fed Cup champions Coco Vandeweghe and Lauren Davis.
Vandeweghe, in particular, was a key piece in Rinaldi’s 2017 championship-winning team, winning all eight matches in singles and doubles play to help Team USA past Germany, the Czech Republic and Belarus.
Serena last played Fed Cup in the playoffs in Brindisi, Italy, in 2015, so her inclusion in the team for this first-round tie created natural media attention. But her selection has created an even bigger national buzz, considering it will be her first competitive match in almost 13 months.
She last played in the 2017 Australian Open, winning her seventh title at Melbourne Park while pregnant with daughter Alexis Olympia, to whom she gave birth in September. Rinaldi said Fed Cup is the perfect way to ease into competitive play.
“She’s been out, becoming a new mom, and she’s looking to get back into playing,” Rinaldi said. “We saw her play an exhibition at the end of last year, but this is a great way for her to start the year and get a couple matches or a match behind her.
“We haven’t set who’s playing where yet, but she enjoys Fed Cup, and Serena and Venus have been extremely supportive, and it happened to be a good fit. It’s an honor to have them on the team. We had a great team last year at every tie and again this year starting off.”
Rinaldi was not short of options for her first team of the new year. A dozen Americans are currently ranked inside the Top 100, and that list doesn’t include Serena, who is unranked for the first time in her professional career, or Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who was part of the 2017 championship team and is recovering from a knee injury sustained at Wimbledon last summer.
Mattek-Sands hoped to be ready to return to competitive action this weekend, but she is still not 100-percent healthy. Shelby Rogers, who was part of the championship team last year, is still recovering from an injury she picked up at the Australian Open, and Madison Keys is getting more match play under her belt in Doha and Dubai and is excited to rejoin the Fed Cup team later this year. 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens has a scheduling conflict this weekend but could also play a part in Rinaldi's plans throughout the year.
But even without that foursome, the U.S. team enters as overwhelming favorites to advance to April's semifinals. After all, the quartet of Americans suiting up in Asheville has a combined 124 career singles titles, more than 2,000 match wins and $133 million in prize money.
Still, Rinaldi knows anything can happen at Fed Cup, so the choice of her team was far from easy.
“It’s always difficult to pick,” Rinaldi said of the squad selection. “We have so many great American players. I believe in all these players, and you try to put together the best team you can.
“We’re heavily favored on paper, but, that being said, we don’t underestimate any team. We’re going to take it one match at a time, like we always do, and we’ll be prepared, like we always are. We’ll have each other’s back, we’ll have team camaraderie, and we’re going to compete our hearts out.”