Tennis is a lonely sport. During a singles game, a player is out on a court for hours, alone, which is mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing. Yes, there’s also doubles, but it’s often seen as secondary to singles. In either case, tennis is not exactly a team sport.
Enter: the Fed Cup, the biggest annual international women’s sports event in the world. Founded in 1963, this team-centric event focuses on country-vs-country play throughout the year that culminates with a two-country final in November. This year, the U.S. made it to the finals to face off Belarus on their home turf.
I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel to Belarus for the finals, to report on Team USA courtesy of the United States Tennis Association. (The organization paid for my flight and stay at the Marriott). As a former college tennis player, this was basically my dream come true. It only sweetened the deal that U.S. team was comprised of four seriously badass women: Sloane Stephens, 2017 US Open Champion, Coco Vandeweghe, currently #10 in the world, Alison Riske, and Shelby Rogers.
My first introduction to the women was the night I got into Minsk, while they were getting ready for a gala a few nights before the Fed Cup. They were filming a funny Charlie’s Angels spoof for the USTA (United States Tennis Association) YouTube page in their team suite (a communal space where they hung out and ate meals together). As I watched them prep for the gala — put on their shoes, all Sarah Jessica Parker collection, and compliment each other on their makeup and hair — it quickly became obvious that this team was very much a sisterhood.
As professional athletes...a week in Belarus wasn’t out of the ordinary.
These women compete against each other in the regular season, but here, they were a unit. Their communal energy was infectious, and they were even welcoming to me, as I hovered in the background, watching them film. Icing on the proverbial team cake was when they all pulled out their matching Beats headphones that team captain, Kathy Rinaldi, a former pro player herself, had gotten them, bedazzled with the US flag. Rinaldi also showed off her USA-themed manicure — her team spirit was overwhelming.
My first day in Belarus was a whirlwind. I headed to the official draw ceremony for the Fed Cup, which was held at Minsk's Town Hall. There were men in armor on horseback outside the hall, and the draw was determined by a female archer, who shot a bow and arrow into a one of four tennis balls on a giant target. It was impressive, and all the players watched, awestruck, filming the archer's perfect shot with their iPhones.
The team continued to show their unity as the final game neared. At a press conference, Riske was asked what her holiday wish was — her reply was “to be at home with my family” — Stephens walked up to her and embraced her in a huge hug. This is the woman who broke onto the tennis scene in a big way in 2013, after beating Serena Williams at the Australian Open, one of the four biggest tournaments in tennis. This year, she won the US Open in September, after being out for most of 2017 post-foot surgery, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, and earning $3.7 million for her Grand Slam win. I learned that Stephens only started playing tennis when she was nine, which is very impressive as most professional players start much younger. Another fun fact? Her favorite movie is Coyote Ugly.
The camaraderie continued into the official start of the Fed Cup, on November 11. Vandeweghe was up first, and her teammates sat along the sidelines loudly cheering her on, the entire match. They were so into it that they often stood up, danced around, and pumped their fists. Vandeweghe secured a tight 6-4, 6-4 win against Aliaksandra Sasnovich. The opening match was electric, exciting, and a stellar start to the weekend.
On the second day of the Fed Cup, the US and Belarus were tied 2-2, as Sloane had lost both of her matches in tight third sets. The score required a tie-breaking doubles match, for which captain Rinaldi nominated Vandeweghe and Rogers. The rest of the women sat on the sidelines, cheering them on. Riske had her face painted with red, white and blue stars. Stephens, who had just come off the heels of a grueling loss, came out of the locker room a few games into the match wearing a US-colored headband with feathers and sparkles. Despite falling to Sasnovich 30 minutes before, she was out there cheering for her teammates.
Rogers and Vandeweghe won the first set 6-3, but the second set went to a tiebreaker at 6-6. Despite the close second set, there was never a flicker of doubt on the teams’ face. They knew their friends would pull through. And they did. Winning the tiebreaker 7-3, and securing the Fed Cup for the US for the first time since 2000. When Rogers and Vandeweghe won the final point, they threw their racquets up in the air and ran to embrace each other in a huge hug, while the rest of the team charged the court from the sidelines.
When Vandeweghe was asked about the win after the match, she immediately commented on Roger’s contributions, saying “[Shelby] definitely carried me through most of that match when it mattered." Vandeweghe’s humility was impressive, considering she’s won every single Fed Cup match she played this year. Instead of accepting all the praise, she turned the attention to her partner. And when Rogers was asked about the match, she did the same, crediting Vandeweghe: "She’s such a leader for this team, she’s been here all year long for us.”
While the team was stacked with talented players, the all-for-one attitude no doubt helped the win. There was something magical and so special about watching four women come together as a unit in a sport that rarely allows it. They celebrated by dancing around the court together, cheering, and running over to their support staff, trainers, hitting partners, communications director, and others, and giving them all huge hugs. Vandeweghe even ran over to Rinaldi’s coaching partner, Lisa Raymond, to give up her medal, draping it around the Raymond's neck.
As for me, I left Belarus with a whole new sense of admiration of how tennis players can be a team, too: This group of women, who travel around the world all year competing against each other, came together for their country.
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