--- By Joey Johnston ---
WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — In another life, when she was a teenage tennis prodigy during the 1980s, Kathy Rinaldi trained off-and-on at the Saddlebrook Resort.
The reason was simple.
"It was where you wanted to go for tennis at the highest level,'' Rinaldi said. "It was where you could improve your game and see the best competition.''
All these years later, Rinaldi has returned to Saddlebrook, which still features tennis at the highest level. But now she's captain of the United States Federation Cup team, which faces the Czech Republic in the event's semifinals on April 22-23.
It's the most prestigious event ever at Saddlebrook, which is best known as the former training ground of Grand Slam tournament champions such as Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and Justine Henin. These days, Saddlebrook regulars could find themselves working alongside John Isner or Sascha Zverev, top 20-level men's players.
Now it's the place where Rinaldi's U.S. team can make some history of its own on Saddlebrook's green clay court. The U.S. hasn't won the Fed Cup since 2000, while the Czech Republic has captured five of the past six championships.
"This would mean so much to our players,'' Rinaldi said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves because the Czech Republic is very confident and very successful in this event.
"To beat a team that has been so dominant would be really big for American tennis. Our players are very aware of what is at stake here. They can't wait.''
The U.S. lineup includes top 50 singles players CoCo Vandeweghe (No. 24), Lauren Davis (No. 36) and Shelby Rogers (No. 49), plus Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the world's No. 1-ranked doubles player. It's a talented and versatile slate of players selected during a particularly strong time for the American women, which have 18 players ranked in the top 100.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic will counter with No. 38 Katerina Siniakova, No. 58 Kristyna Pliskova, No. 107 Denisa Allertova and No. 223 Marketa Vondrousova.
Play begins on April 22 with two singles matches. On April 23, the reverse singles matches and doubles match will be contested. U.S. coverage is provided by the Tennis Channel.
The U.S., which swept Germany 4-0 in the first round, is bidding for its first appearance in the Fed Cup finals since 2010.
"An event like this is what we've been working toward for a long time,'' Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey said. "It's great to be a part of something as important as this.
"I think everyone who plays tennis — men or women — has an affinity for women's tennis because they can equate their own game to the shots and strategy. It's a little tougher to relate to the power of the men's game. The U.S. Fed Cup team has a good record, but it would be very good to get back on the winning side.''
Rinaldi said she was put in a "tough spot'' because many American women were worthy of a spot on the team. On balance, though, this group of players has impressive accomplishments in 2017.
Vandeweghe reached the Australian Open semifinals, defeating three seeded players along the way, including then No. 1-ranked Angelique Kerber. Davis captured her first WTA singles title in Auckland, New Zealand, downing four seeded players during that run. Rogers reached two WTA tournament quarterfinals and upset No. 4 Simona Halep in the Australian Open.
Mattek-Sands has 25 career WTA tournament doubles titles, including this year's Australian Open crown.
The common bond?
"They all have such a pride and a desire to play for their country,'' Rinaldi said. "I never got the chance to play Fed Cup, but played a lot of Wightman Cup matches (U.S. vs. Great Britain). It always meant so much to me.
"When you get the call to play for your country, there's no hesitation. You do it. That's what we have to look forward to here. It's a team atmosphere, a chance to let your guard down a bit (from the WTA Tour) and bond with your peers.''
Rinaldi, who toured the resort's 3,000-seat stadium and hit with players from the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy during a site visit on Wednesday, said her players will have a full week of training.
But some fun will be mixed in, too. The U.S. Fed Cup players are scheduled to throw out the first pitch prior to Tuesday's Tampa Bay Rays-Detroit Tigers baseball game at Tropicana Field in nearby St. Petersburg. There's also a trip to the Busch Gardens theme park on the docket.
For the most part, though, it's about focus.
"I think just being at a place like Saddlebrook brings back a lot of memories for me,'' Rinaldi said. "Just the big-time atmosphere, the amount of talent and synergy you feel just by being around a place like this, it gets you motivated.
"We are hoping for a true home-court advantage. These girls are used to competing against the best in the world, but it's a different sort of feeling when you're playing for your country. There will be a lot of emotions out there and I think we're really bringing in a solid team. And that's the best part about a week like this — team, team, team — they will all be out to do what's best for the team.''