Team USA BALANCING FUN, PRACTICE
AT FED CUP FINAL
Ashley Marshall | November 9, 2017
BELARUS, Minsk – The Fed Cup final will be contested as a best-of-five match spread over two days this weekend. But behind the scenes, there's a whole week's worth of balancing travel and practice with off-court commitments and team bonding to ensure the players are in the right frame of mind for when the first ball is struck.
Firstly, consider the logistics for Team USA of five players traveling to Belarus on different schedules. Shelby Rogers arrived from Hong Kong on Monday and Alison Riske came in from Tianjin, China, that same day. Coco Vandeweghe flew in on Tuesday from Zhuhai, China, where she reached the final of the year-ending Elite Trophy last weekend, Sloane Stephens came from the same tournament after her second round-robin match, and practice partner Jennifer Brady landed Wednesday. ADVERTISEMENT
Once settled in to the hotel, players have to juggle a number of responsibilities as they're pulled in different directions. In addition to practice – Team USA has two three-hour windows each day at Chizhovka Arena, a 30-minute drive from the hotel – there's everything that comes with being a professional athlete: sports massages and physiotherapy, gym work, early-morning drug testing, relaxation and match planning.
"I think it is a delicate balance," captain Kathy Rinaldi said. "Everyone is coming from different situations. You have to be open-minded. I listen and observe, make sure that each player is individually ready to go for Saturday and Sunday, get what they need in."
There are media obligations throughout the week, starting with a pre-draw press conference with Belarus, and traveling international media followed by one-on-one interviews with broadcast TV partners and rights holders. Riske and Rogers held a Facebook Live Q&A with fans on the International Tennis Federation's social media channel, and the players and captain Rinaldi took part in a Carpool Karaoke-style spoof video inside a Porsche, one of the tournament's sponsors.
Then there are the conference calls with American news outlets stateside, conducted in the evening to accommodate journalists waking up with either an eight- or 11-hour time difference, depending on whether they're on the east or west coast of the U.S., and another round of team press conferences and individual interviews following Friday's draw ceremony.
There are team breakfasts each morning at the hotel and lunches are typically served at the arena depending on the practice schedule. Dinner can be a combination of hotel restaurant dining, room service inside the team lounge or a group meal in Minsk.
On Thursday night, the teams attended the official Fed Cup dinner, consisting of speaches from dignitaries and captains, traditional Belarusian musical performances and dances and the exchange of gifts between players.
There was also an inpromptu dance-off between Team USA and their counterparts when a Belarusian band started playing Cotton Eye Joe, an American country music song popular before some of the players competing this weekend were born. But that kind of thing is all part of the relaxation process, being able to let your hair down and unwind despite being at a gala-type event.
Prior to the dinner, the U.S. team practiced in the arena for three hours before getting lunch and then attending the spa to get their hair and makeup done. Back at the hotel, they had a surprise in store when they were presented with shoes sent from Sarah Jessica Parker. The American actress and designer, best known for her role in "Sex and the City," also filmed a good luck message for the team and wrote each player a note to accompany their pair of heels.
"Obviously this week is fun because we get to do all the stuff together, we get to hang out, do stuff we normally wouldn't do, play games, all of that good stuff," Stephens said. "It's always a really fun week. It's something that we never get to do. We only get to do it twice, three times a year. It's nice to be able to spend it with these lovely young ladies. It's actually really fun because obviously when you play week to week, you don't get the chance to hang out with your girls."
Vandeweghe and coach Pat Cash went to a World War II museum on Wednesday and joked about learning they could rent a tank, and the players are planning to hold a game night in their team room Friday evening. Group excursions are not uncommon – the team went to Busch Gardens and caught a baseball game in the days leading up to their semifinal in Tampa – but there's also time for individual excursions, like when Coco took a break from the practice court to go surfing in Maui before the quarterfinal against Germany.
What makes such a trip possible is the support system in place for the players. First-year captain Rinaldi has good friend and Grand Slam champion Lisa Raymond on her coaching staff, and each of the players have brought their personal coaches with them to Belarus: Cash and Julian Romero (Vandeweghe), Marc Lucero (Rogers), Stephen Amritraj (Riske), Othmane Garma (Stephens). And in addition to non-roster player Brady, recent University of Florida graduate Maxx Lipman and Roger Anderson are serving as hitting partners.
The team also traveled with doctor Alexis Colvin, physiotherapist Joanna Goldin and massage therapist Anke Lecher. Stringer Angelika Prokes is also with the squad, as is David Ramos and Geoff Russell, who have been helping the players analyse match footage of their opponents.
"We do have a lot of fun, but it's the end of the year," Rinaldi said. "It's a little different than in the beginning of the year. I think everybody is exhausted and they've had a lot of tennis.
"With that being said, I know this group of players. They thrive and love playing for their country, so they're going to leave it all on the court. At this point we have to make sure they're getting plenty of rest. You take it day by day to see what the needs are, make sure that each player's needs are met."