TO PLAY SINGLES VS. FRANCE
Ashley Marshall | April 20, 2018
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France – With a spot in the Fed Cup final up for grabs, U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi will turn to two players who helped win Team USA's record 18th championship last year.
Rinaldi nominated reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens and Fed Cup record-breaker Coco Vandeweghe when the U.S. begins its semifinal against France on Saturday.
Stephens and Vandeweghe, the only two players in France from last year's finals-winning team, were picked to play singles by Rinaldi at Friday's official draw ceremony, held in the Arena du Pays d'Aix. Madison Keys and Bethanie Mattek-Sands are currently scheduled to play doubles together on Sunday.
On Saturday, Stephens will open the tie against French No. 2 Pauline Parmentier, and Vandeweghe will follow against top-ranked Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic. ADVERTISEMENT
Then on Sunday, Stephens will begin Day 2 against Mladenovic, while Vandeweghe will square off against Parmentier. The doubles match is currently slated to see Keys and Mattek-Sands face Mladenovic and Amandine Hesse.
Based purely on the rankings, Keys is the second-highest ranked American on the squad, but Rinaldi said she chose Vandeweghe to play singles since she has won her past 13 Fed Cup matches across singles and doubles.
In 2017, Vandeweghe made Fed Cup history by going a perfect 8-0 in singles and doubles play over the course of the year. With six singles wins, she became the first American ever to win all six singles matches since the World Group format was established in 1995.
"Obviously a very tough decision when you have three Top-20 players," Rinaldi said. "Sloane coming off the big Miami win and Top 10, and then between Madison and Coco, it’s great to have two great players. With Coco’s streak still going, I think we wanted to give her a chance to keep her streak going. She’s done so great. She was the MVP of Fed Cup last year, so we’re going to see if we can continue that run."
On paper, the U.S. looks to have the edge over the hosts, both in ranking and in head-to-head matchups.
While the American team has three players ranked inside the Top 16 singles rankings, plus a former world No. 1 doubles player, the French team features just one player inside the Top 100 – Mladenovic, who was No. 19 at the time of nominations. Parmentier is ranked No. 120, and Hesse is ranked 195th.
But French captain Yannick Noah hopes the European red clay will serve as an equalizer and maybe even tilt the tie in favor of Les Bleus.
"I look forward to the matches," Noah said. "We have had good preparation, and as you know, playing indoor on clay is totally different from what they have down the last few months. It takes some time, and I am really happy with the way the girls responded. I understand the U.S. team came here later, and I think it is a good thing for us because otherwise, of course, the U.S. team is favorite.
"It’s all going to be about how you adapt to the clay. The clay this week is very slow, so obviously they both like short rallies, and it is going to come down to the one who move better and is the more patient."
On Saturday, Stephens will look to replicate the victory she secured against Parmentier in Acapulco earlier this year. She is 2-1 against the French veteran, although Parmentier won the only previous clay-court match they played in Strasbourg in 2016.
It will also afford Stephens the chance to avenge a 2014 Fed Cup playoff defeat to France in St. Louis, even if the main goal of the weekend is to secure safe passage to November's final.
"Fed Cup competition is completely different than playing a regular tournament because you’re playing for your country, but I played well in that match," Stephens said of the first-round match in Acapulco, which she won, 6-4, 6-0. "It was on hard courts, so that was a little bit different. It’s a little advantage, but I just have to go out and reset.
"Clay gives me a little bit more time, and I like it. It suits my game well, and I’ve always enjoyed playing on it, so it’s an advantage for me. It’s an advantage if they are playing a little slower."
But while Stephens is embracing the red clay, Vandeweghe knows it doesn't play to her strengths. Still, with five wins over Mladenovic in six tries and a victory over Parmentier in Melbourne in 2017, the 26-year-old American remains confident she can help punch the U.S. team's ticket to the final.
"It does not suit my game whatsoever," Vandeweghe said of the surface. "But Kiki and I go way back to juniors. We’ve played each other a bunch, and there are no new surprises except that this is the first time we’re playing on clay. That’s the only new surprise, and hopefully I’ll be able to take my success onto the clay court, as well.
"She serves really well, she likes to dictate with her forehand, and she has a little bit of craft with the backhand with the drop shot, and she can play slices. That’s normally what happens, unless she changes something completely different on clay. It’s not like I’m a novice to the important days and coming down to the wire. I think that goes to my advantage. This is the first time I’m playing these players on clay courts, so hopefully it’s not that much different, as far as the way I’m able to implement my game. You never know. Fed Cup allows a lot of different things to happen."
Should the tie come down to the doubles, Team USA will turn to the pairing of Keys and Mattek-Sands for the first time in Fed Cup play. They have played together once before on the WTA Tour, and while Mattek-Sands is 7-0 in doubles action, Keys will be playing in just her third doubles match.
"We played in Rome last year, so we’ve only played that one time," Mattek-Sands said. "But I know Madi really well. For me, I think the friendship and the communication is the most important aspect in doubles. Back when I played with Lucie [Safarova], the first tournament we played we won. And I think it’s that connection that you can get right away.
"Madison has such a huge game, so the goal is really to set me up at net while she fires away from the baseline. Her serve, her forehand, she’s so powerful. She’s a great player to play doubles with because she can set someone up at net so well."
Rinaldi refuses to look too far ahead, but she acknowledged that a second straight finals appearance would be memorable.
"It would be amazing," Rinaldi said. "That’s our goal all along, to keep the cup home. But one match at a time. We don’t underestimate anybody, we’re not going to be overconfident. We’ve prepared well the last few days, and so we’re going to compete and compete hard to keep the cup home.
"These weeks are really fun. They’re special for me. I get to spend them with Lisa [Raymond], my coach, and the girls, and I can’t even express in words how great these weeks are and how much I treasure them."