Final USTA Fed Cup Special Feature with Joey Johnston

Final USTA Fed Cup Special Feature with Joey Johnston

WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — It was red, white and ... whew!

The United States, pushed to the limit, clinched its first Fed Cup final berth in seven years when CoCo Vandeweghe and Bethanie Mattek-Sands captured the deciding doubles point to defeat the Czech Republic 3-2 in Sunday's semifinals before 2,756 fired-up fans at the Saddlebrook Resort.

Mattek-Sands ended things on a perfectly placed drop shot, locking up a 6-2, 6-3 victory against the Czech team of Katerina Siniakova and Kristyna Pliskova.

When it was over, Vandeweghe fell onto her back — part-elation, part-relief, all-jubilation — and rolled in the green clay.

"I love being in this role and helping to lead this team,'' said Vandeweghe, who had a hand in all of the U.S. points after winning both of her singles matches. "I've always dreamed about doing that, being a leader of a team like this. I couldn't ask for anything more.''

That carried over to the venue as well.

On a weekend when the U.S. team made significant strides toward its first Fed Cup title since 2000 — it will seek that at Belarus in November — the Saddlebrook Resort also was a winner.

"I've never seen an atmosphere like this at a tennis event,'' said tennis fan Stephanie Maddox of Tampa. "It was such great fun.''

As fans approached the stadium court, they were greeted by the red, white and blue-clad co-ed cheerleading squad from Bartow High School, the four-time state champion and two-time national champion. If they weren't chanting, "Let's go ... U! S! A! U! S! A!,'' they were dancing in rhythm to the stylings of the Plant High School drumline.

Meanwhile, an Uncle Sam-like character — standing 10 feet tall on stilts — posed for photos and delighted the children.

Inside the stadium, there was a rip-roaring, flag-waving backdrop with dueling trumpeters, face paintings and spirited chants between nearly every point.

"I'll be dreaming of that trumpet,'' Mattek-Sands said.

"I thought it was amazing,'' Vangeweghe said. "This is one of the best ones (Fed Cup ties) I've been a part of. I think it's really something special to have home-court advantage. I'm so glad that the people here in Florida came out to support us as well as they did.''

Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey said he hopes it's the start of a renewed relationship between his property and the USTA. In the late 1980s, Saddlebrook was the site of the USTA's first Player Development program, bringing some of the nation's most promising boys and girls players in for training. It has since hosted a variety of lower-level tournaments and hopes to do even more in the future.

"We've been part and parcel of the USTA for 30 years and we're honored that they chose us to host the Fed Cup,'' Dempsey said. "We believe in their mission and want to be part of it. We want to promote and expose tennis in this country because it is a terrific sport. The Fed Cup was a great example of that.''

The U.S. team, which also included Shelby Rogers and Lauren Davis, took full advantage of Saddlebrook's hospitality during the week-long stay. The visiting squad from the Czech Republic also praised the venue.

"It was great with great weather,'' said Czech Republic captain Petr Pala, who added the weather was significantly colder back in the homeland. "I'm feeling almost like (I'm on a) holiday.''

After mixing in some fun during the week, both teams got down to business in a setting that emphasized national pride, along with sights and sounds you don't get at a traditional WTA tour event.

"It's actually really cool having that because we don't have that at any other tournament,'' Davis said. "Just the atmosphere and the excitement of it all definitely pumps you up a lot.''

"I think it makes a difference, too, home team versus away team,'' Mattek-Sands said. "Even when I played some of the away (Fed Cup ties), you just kind of pretend they're cheering for you. Either way, I think it's cool to have fans supporting teams like that. It's great to see tennis fans out there getting loud. I personally like it.''

All in all, U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi said the week could not have gone better. She hasn't contemplated her lineup for the final against Belarus. She said all the American players from Serena and Venus Williams and throughout the rankings have offered support.

For the moment, Rinaldi and her players will bask in the hard-fought victory against the Czech Republic, which has won five of the previous six Fed Cup titles.

"The whole thing was spectacular,'' Rinaldi said. The atmosphere, the stadium, the hitting partners, the accomodations, the food. We've just had a tremendous week.

"I can't speak highly enough. I played here when I was younger, and I played in the doubles championship here one year, so it was great to be back because Saddlebrook has a rich history of tennis.''

The Fed Cup semifinals between the U.S. and Czech Republic was just the latest chapter.