--- By Joey Johnston ---
WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — For the uninitiated fans, the Fed Cup is still tennis. But it's different.
During a break in preparations for Saturday's semifinals, when the United States team meets the Czech Republic at the Saddlebrook Resort, U.S. player CoCo Vandeweghe offered a brief fan tutorial.
"It's important to have a home tie and, vice versa, if you're playing an away tie, you expect the one-sided aspect of cheering,'' Vandeweghe said. "We expect it being one-sided out there on the weekend.''
Then she smiled.
"Hint-hint ... bring it on!'' Vandeweghe said.
Tampa Bay area fans are expected to do just that. The U.S., reaching its first semifinal in seven years, is seeking its first Fed Cup championship since 2000.
Former top 10-ranked player Kathy Rinaldi, in her first season as U.S. Fed Cup captain, said she would welcome an enthusiastic, nationalistic atmosphere.
She said her players deserve that.
"My expectation is for them to support each other, have each other's backs and leave it all out there on the court,'' Rinaldi said. "They're excited to be here and represent their country. They want to be here.
"The camaraderie is very high on this team. Everyone who comes to Fed Cup is a star and a great player. It's about being a team player this week. Our girls have a lot of fun and work hard. Hopefully that will show this weekend.''
Vandeweghe, Shelby Rogers and Bethanie Mattek-Sands participated in February's 4-0 win against Germany at Hawaii. Lauren Davis, who won her first WTA singles title earlier this year at Auckland, New Zealand and has played in two previous Fed Cup ties, was added to the team.
Mattek-Sands, who has played in eight previous Fed Cup ties with a 6-0 doubles record, and Vandeweghe played on the 2010 team, which reached the final against Italy. At first, they struggled to remember details of that year.
"It has been that long,'' Mattek-Sands said.
But she said the U.S. players aim to change that.
"It's about the team,'' Mattek-Sands said. "It's not always who has the highest-ranked players. Fed Cup is completely different. If you have good energy throughout the week, it really helps on the weekend.''
If nothing else, Vandeweghe said this U.S. team has energy — along with enthusiasm and a fun-loving spirit.
Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, prior to the Tampa Bay Rays-Detroit Tigers major-league baseball game, Vandeweghe was chosen to throw out the first pitch. Instead, she served a tennis ball to the plate.
After a news conference Wednesday, the U.S. team posed for photos. Then someone asked, "What about the selfie?'' On cue, Rinaldi and the players lined up as Vandeweghe stretched out her arm to the proper angle, then clicked away.
"We are working hard, but having a great time at Saddlebrook,'' Mattek-Sands said. "I came here a couple of times when I was younger, but haven't been back in a long time. They did a great job with the stadium court and the weather here is great.''
"They are spoiling us pretty good this week,'' said Rogers, who played in a $25,000 USTA event at Saddlebrook in early 2016, and now finds herself back at the same venue as a Fed Cup semifinalist. "The people here are so nice. They go above and beyond to make sure we have everything. We're staying here and we can walk to the court. So far, it has been a great experience.''
What would make it greater?
Need you ask?
U.S. players say they're motivated to produce the country's first Fed Cup final appearance since 2010. As Vandeweghe said, they would welcome an assist from the fans.
Vandeweghe said she has always been motivated to play for Team USA because her mother was an Olympic swimmer.
"I've actually experienced Fed Cup as a spectator (in LaJolla, Calif.) and that was an unbelievable experience for a tennis fan,'' Vandeweghe said. "Having that idea (of emphasizing the team) and that mindset bring a better atmosphere out onto the tennis court.
"It's really enjoyable to bring kids and other people who haven't really experienced a tennis match ever. I think it's one of the best experiences you could bring anyone to.''