A year ago, the United States captured its first Fed Cup championship since 2000, with a 3-2 win over Belarus in Minsk. Sloane Stephens, fresh off her United States Open victory, and CoCo Vandeweghe, who had just ascended into the world’s top 10 for the first time, led the way for the Americans.
This weekend, the United States again will play in the final of the Fed Cup, this time against the Czech Republic in Prague. But unlike last year, simply filling out the team has proved to be an obstacle.
Stephens, who just finished as the runner-up at the WTA Finals in Singapore, is “off the grid,” according to her agent, John Tobias. Vandeweghe, hampered by an ankle injury sustained during Wimbledon and winless in tour singles matches since mid-June, has been posting photos of herself hugging elephants in Thailand.
Neither Serena nor Venus Williams, both of whom helped the United States team win its opening tie in Asheville, N.C., in February (making them eligible for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo), has played a tour match since the U.S. Open. And Madison Keys withdrew before her semifinal at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, China, last week, citing a knee injury, and told the United States Fed Cup captain, Kathy Rinaldi, not to count on her.
“I wasn’t sure how my knee was going to hold up after this week,” Keys said even before her withdrawal. “I didn’t want to be a liability and have her put me on the team and then me show up and not be able to hit for three days.”
That has left Rinaldi, a former top-10 player now in her second year as Fed Cup captain, to field a squad that includes three players — Danielle Collins, Sofia Kenin and Nicole Melichar — who have never played a Fed Cup match and a fourth, Alison Riske, whose career record in Fed Cup singles is 1-1. None is ranked within the world’s top 35.
“Ultimately, it’s the athlete’s choice and I respect that,” Rinaldi said of the absence of her first-choice players. “We’re fielding the best team we possibly can with the players coming to Prague. These girls are competitors, and we’re all in it together.”
They will take on a Czech team that features the two-time Wimbledon champion and world No. 7 Petra Kvitova and the No. 1-ranked doubles team of Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova. Karolina Pliskova, ranked No. 8, pulled out last week because of an injury and was replaced by 33rd-ranked Barbora Strycova.
“The Fed Cup final wasn’t on Sloane’s schedule back in January,” said Kamau Murray, Stephens’s coach. “It’s hard to look that far ahead and plan your entire season on what-ifs. It’s an upside-downside situation. Sloane played a lot of tournaments at the end, with no injuries, but now her body’s tired. And it’s a short off-season.
“We have a lot to accomplish before she starts up again in January. The timing of this just isn’t great.”
The apathy toward team competition by the players is not new, and it isn’t limited to the women’s side. A similar lack of interest from men’s stars and, in turn, global audiences prompted the International Tennis Federation to overhaul the Davis Cup starting with the 2019 event, condensing it into one week of competition in November.
So far, any changes to Fed Cup have been put on hold.
“It’s easy to blame the players, but that’s a mistake,” said Patrick McEnroe, who served as the U.S. Davis Cup captain from 2000 to 2010. “We ask a lot of them, time-wise, and what’s the payoff? The issue is a scheduling problem and it’s the fault of the governing bodies of the sport.”
Leading the U.S. now will be the 38th-ranked Collins, who had a breakout season, rising 131 spots in the WTA rankings since the beginning of the year. She reached the semifinals in Miami with wins over Vandeweghe and Venus Williams and the round of 16 in Indian Wells with a victory over Stephens.
But Collins, 24, has limited experience in big-match team play, aside from winning two N.C.A.A. singles championships for the University of Virginia.
Also new to Fed Cup are Kenin, a 19-year-old Floridian ranked No. 52, and Melichar, who was born in the Czech Republic but moved to the United States when she was six weeks old. Melichar was a runner-up in doubles at Wimbledon and the WTA Finals, both with the Czech Kveta Peschke, losing both times to Krejcikova and Siniakova.
Riske, ranked No. 63, was on Rinaldi’s roster for last year’s final but did not play.
Another notable absence is Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a former world No. 1 in doubles who has five Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in mixed doubles on her résumé. Mattek-Sands was a member of the team that beat France, 3-2, in the Fed Cup semifinals in April, and she declared herself ready and eager to go to Prague. But Rinaldi opted to take Melichar instead.
“Emotionally I was really ready to go to the big dance, especially after I couldn’t go last year,” said Mattek-Sands, who is currently ranked No. 65 in doubles, far behind Melichar’s No. 15. She missed last year’s final after having knee surgery. “But I understand that it was a tough call for Kathy. Do you go by the rankings or do you go by experience? It’s a delicate balance between choosing people who are playing the best at this moment versus those who have already been a big part of the Fed Cup.”
Last year, the United States, which has won the Fed Cup a record 18 times, was viewed as a heavy favorite against Belarus, which was without the two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and had no players ranked within the world’s top 75. But Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich, both of whom beat Stephens in singles, gave the Americans a scare before Belarus lost the deciding doubles match. Rinaldi is hoping for a similar upset push this year, only from her team this time.
“I want to be very firm here,” Rinaldi said. “I believe in all of these girls.”