Fed Cup: Even sans Venus and Serena, young U.S. team ready to take the torch, captain says
ASHEVILLE — U.S. Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi came to Asheville a year ago accompanied by two of the biggest stars tennis has ever known. When she returns next week, she won't be.
But even without Venus and Serena Williams, Rinaldi said the U.S. squad returning to Western North Carolina to take on Australia in the first round of Fed Cup is ripe with young talent that could be a force for years to come. It is headlined by the world's 17th-ranked singles player, Madison Keys, and Danielle Collins, who Rinaldi says had a "breakthrough" last year culminating in a January appearance in the Australian Open semifinals.
The team also includes Sofia Kenin, the world's 36th-ranked player who goes by "Sonya," and Nicole Melichar, who, like Rinaldi, grew up in Stuart, Florida, crossing paths on the court dating back to when Melichar was a child.
The event also is expected to draw sold-out crowds, boost the local economy and again put Asheville in the spotlight for hosting a prominent sporting event.
"We do have some youngsters — even younger than (the current roster) — coming up through the ranks and the pathway is solid, the structure is pretty good and we hope these players, the young ones will keep stepping up," Rinaldi said. "Venus and Serena (have been) holding the torch for so long and have done so much for American tennis that it’s nice now to have some younger players able to step up."
This year is Rinaldi's third leading the U.S. Fed Cup team, winning a title in 2017 and finishing as runner-up to the Czech Republic a year ago. She said last year's team — which came to Asheville featuring the Williams sisters, CoCo Vandeweghe and Lauren Davis — had an "absolutely amazing" experience.
Last year's U.S. team cruised to a 3-1 first round Fed Cup win over the Netherlands, most notable as it marked Serena Williams' return to competitive tennis following the birth of a child with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.
Rinaldi said it "should speak volumes" that Fed Cup returned to Asheville in consecutive years, the first city to host back-to-back in more than a decade. She and members of the U.S. team took part in the event's weeklong festivities a year ago, shared time together at the Omni Grove Park Inn and even toured Biltmore Estate.
"You could just feel it everywhere, every corner," she said. "Everybody was excited that Fed Cup was there. It just meant something, whether they were a tennis fan or they were not — all ages.
"That’s what makes Fed Cup so special, and I think Asheville just showed what Fed Cup is all about."
In October, U.S. Tennis Association Senior Director of Team Events Jeff Ryan said the decision to come back to Asheville this year ultimately was "very easy," citing the city's passion for the sport and its partnerships with local entities including with Explore Asheville and U.S. Cellular General Manager Chris Corl.
Corl said this week hosting last year's Fed Cup already has opened the door for the city and the venue to have conversations about other major sporting events.
Major renovations to the arena, which opened in June 1974, also are a contributing factor, he said.
"The conversation is a lot easier to get started," Corl said. "Before, it was 15 phone calls and 20 emails and I would nag them to get on the phone. Now I send an email and I just say, 'Would like you to consider us?'"
And part of that selling point also comes with the experience of hosting an event like Fed Cup.
"Not only should you consider it, but one of the larger sporting entities came back two years in a row, which is something they don’t do," he said.
Most of the team and USTA representatives are expected to arrive in the community early next week. Tennis exhibitions for local school students are planned for Feb 6-8 at the U.S. Cellular Center with the event's draw ceremony planned for Feb. 8. Other outreach clinics, which are expected to draw more than 1,000 children, are scheduled during the week.
Fed Cup play is Feb. 9-10. Tickets for the event still are available online at ticketmaster.com.
"We know we’re going to have a lot of support behind us and that really counts a lot in Fed Cup play because anything can happen," Rinaldi said. "It’s always nice to play in front of your home country and the fans there were so great to us last year, the community was so great to us.
"We’re all excited to get back and have that support and feel that support."
By Dillon Davis, Asheville Citizen Times