Selection surprises as Fed Cup draw revealed
ASHEVILE, N.C. – Madison Keys and Ashleigh Barty, the respective top-ranked players from Team USA and Australia, were both, as expected, named the No. 1 singles players for this weekend’s Fed Cup World Group opening-round tie in Asheville. But according to the WTA Rankings and most outside observers, both captains served up a surprise in their No. 2 singles selections.
World No. 37 Sonya Kenin—tabbed ahead of Australian Open semifinalist Danielle Collins—and No. 157 Kimberly Birrell—preferred to No. 47 Daria Gavrilova—were put forward for the second spots, adding further intrigue to an already unpredictable tie featuring two teams without a player over the age of 25.
Collins, the WTA’s No. 23-ranked singles player, has been under the weather in the buildup to the tie, leading U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi to put Kenin forward. Collins’ illness may have saved her captain from a tough decision; she previously selected Kenin ahead of the UVA graduate in November’s Fed Cup final against the Czech Republic.
“All four of these players are amazing. I believe in all of them,” Rinaldi said. “They’ve all started the year extremely well … I think any of these girls can step up and play any position.”
For Aussie captain Alicia Molik, a slow start to 2019 for Gavrilova opened the door for Birrell, who reached the third round of the Australian Open in just her second career Grand Slam main-draw appearance.
“Kim, to be honest with you, has been on fire,” said Molik. “We think she can win.”
While the Saturday lineup is set in stone, both captains have the opportunity to substitute on Day 2.
Kenin will open play on Saturday against Barty, the tie’s highest-ranked singles player, at No. 13, with Keys taking on Birrell in the second rubber at the U.S. Cellular Center. If no changes are made, Keys will take on Barty to kick off Sunday’s action, with Kenin and Birrell contesting the fourth rubber.
Both Collins, with Nicole Melichar, and Gavrilova, alongside Barty, were selected for doubles—potentially the fifth and deciding match in the tie, should the teams split the four singles points. Like the rest of the Sunday slate, the doubles selections are also subject to change.
As the underdog in the tie’s opening match, Kenin will look to the crowd for support against the Aussie heavyweight Barty. It’s a big shift from three months ago, when the 20-year-old made her Fed Cup debut in Prague, playing the villian in front of 10,000 Czech fans.
“Prague was something memorable. I’m never going to forget that,” she said of the final. “Only difference here is they’re going to be cheering for me instead of against me. It’s going to help.”
In a role reversal, the second rubber will see the Americans and Keys as firm favorites, with the 140-spot gap in the WTA Rankings making it the most lopsided match of the weekend. Keys, who Rinaldi called her team’s leader earlier in the week, will look to improve her 3-2 career Fed Cup singles record.
“I have played on a couple of Fed Cup teams, so I feel like I kind of came in and knew what to expect and all that,” she said of her role guiding this young team. Her three teammates all made their Fed Cup debuts in November, though Collins and Melichar did not see the court.
Collins could make her on-court debut in singles on Sunday, potentially replacing Kenin for a pivotal fourth rubber, with an opportunity to either put her team through or stave off elimination.
“Feeling fine now,” she said, downplaying any health concerns. “Hopefully this will give me another day of recovery and I’ll be ready to go on Sunday.”
As the team’s doubles specialist, Melichar will be cheering her teammates on from the sideline for the first four matches. Should she take the court for a decisive fifth match, the WTA’s No. 13-ranked doubles player will be ready.
“I want our team to win, no matter what the score is,” she said. “If we get the win beforehand, that’s the goal … If it comes to 2-2, I’m going to be there, do my best, and we’ll try to get the win.”
A fifth match on the weekend would also be a third match for Barty, who is also the tie’s highest-ranked doubles player, at No. 6. Barty is on an eight-match winning streak in Fed Cup play, dating back to 2017. One year ago, in Australia’s 3-2 World Group II semifinal victory over Ukraine, the 22-year-old accounted for all three of the Aussie wins, including the clinching doubles point (teaming with Casey Dellacqua).
After a busy start to 2019 that included a quarterfinal run at the Australian Open and a final run in Sydney, Barty has no issue with the possibility of playing her 12th, 13th and 14th matches of 2019 this weekend.
“I’ll certainly play whenever Mol [Captain Molik] asks me,” she said. “I’ll be ready to go in any and every situation, knowing that these weeks don’t come around very often. I have to go out there and play with my all, put everything I possibly can on the line for my country, my captain, my team, and enjoy every moment.
“These really are the best weeks of your career.”
It is the first time since 2015 that Team Australia has competed in the World Group, but with Barty in their lineup, the Green and Gold are worthy of their place.
“Team Australia is very strong,” cautioned Captain Rinaldi. “Ash Barty, we don’t have to say much about. We know she’s very strong in singles and doubles … Really not surprised [she was nominated for both.]”
The opening-round tie begins at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, Feb. 9, with Sunday’s action also getting underway at 1 p.m. ET. Tennis Channel Center Court will provide daily live coverage of the tie to a national audience, while local Asheville coverage will be featured on ABC WLOS-40.