Opponents on court, allies off it: Rinaldi's USA prepare for Ukraine clash

05/04/2022 17:00

Of the seven Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifiers taking place on 15-16 April, there is one which immediately catches the eye and not necessarily for tennis reasons

By Ross McLean
Opponents on court, allies off it: Rinaldi's USA prepare for Ukraine clash

Of the seven Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas Qualifiers taking place on 15-16 April, there is one which immediately catches the eye and not necessarily for tennis reasons, although the on-court action will be as electrifying as ever.  

The tie in question is the showdown between USA and Ukraine in Asheville, North Carolina, the poignancy of which barely needs stressing as the Russian invasion of war-torn Ukraine continues.

Events in eastern Europe have placed much into perspective, as has the continued commitment of those who represent Ukraine given the uncertainty they and their nation face at the present time.

While there remains a tie to be contested and a place at November’s Billie Jean King Cup Finals to be sealed, the sense of the tennis family uniting in solidarity for a besieged nation is palpable. USA captain Kathy Rinaldi and the American camp certainly echo such sentiments.

“We’re looking forward to a weekend with a very competitive spirit on court, but also friendship off court,” said Rinaldi.

“We realise what the nation of Ukraine is going through and leading up to this tie we’re very happy to make sure the Ukrainians have everything they need.

“We want them to know they are very much supported and have everything needed to prepare for this competition. In fact, on Tuesday night, our team is hosting a dinner. We’re all going to have dinner together before the tie. 

“Every conversation I had with my players before naming the team, everyone wanted to do something for Ukraine and to be there to support the players. We come in as opponents on the court but off court we’re allies.

“These girls see each other week in, week out and it was very important to the team that we support them. The USTA has been very supportive – they’re giving 10 per cent of ticket sales to the Ukraine relief fund.

“Every time someone buys a ticket, we’re raising money for the Ukraine relief fund and that’s really important.”

USA head into the clash having lost just one of their previous seven Billie Jean King Cup ties on home soil dating back to 2016, while they have within their ranks two top-20 players in Danielle Collins and Jessica Pegula.

On Monday, Collins, who reached the Australian Open final in January, surged into the top 10 for the first time and occupies a career-high spot at No. 8. Pegula, meanwhile, is ranked No. 13 after reaching the semi-finals at last week’s Miami Open.

“We have an incredible team as usual,” added Rinaldi. “We have Danielle Collins and Jessica Pegula playing – our No. 1 and No. 2 top Americans.

“Danielle has cracked the top 10 and I know that was a big goal for her. She’s an incredible competitor and I’ve known her since she was a young junior.

“To see her go through college and to take all that maturity onto the pro circuit and blossom into one of our top players has been incredible to watch and it’s not surprising.

“She played incredible tennis at the Finals in Prague and she’s one that you want on your team because you know what you are going to get from her. Each and every day she’s going to fight and she’s going to compete.

“She’s playing incredible tennis, she’s a great ball striker so we’re really looking forward to having her back on the team. 

“Jessica Pegula, meanwhile, is another great ball striker and has really come into her own the last few years and has just steadily improved. She hits the ball incredibly well and has incredible hands as well. She’s coming in with a lot of confidence and with a career-high ranking as well.”

Rinaldi, herself a former top-10 player who was ranked as high as No. 7 in May 1986, is set to take charge of her 13th tie as USA’s Billie Jean King Cup captain having been appointed in 2017.

During her spell in charge, USA were crowned Billie Jean King Cup champions in 2017 following victory over Belarus in Minsk, although back-to-back titles proved elusive as her charges succumbed to Czech Republic in the 2018 finale.

At last year’s inaugural Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Prague, USA’s journey ended in the semi-finals. However, trophy-chasing Rinaldi has designs on going the distance this time around and making further memories that will last a lifetime.

“As captain, I’ve really tried to make these weeks as special as possible for the players,” she said. “To me, that’s the most important thing.

“These weeks, I’ll remember and treasure for the rest of my life and I hope that when I walk away as captain the players will also think, ‘wow, those were really special and memorable weeks’.

“Obviously we want to win, and we’re there to play tennis, win Billie Jean King Cup and bring it home. Hopefully we can do that again under my captaincy.

“We also want to get to know each other on a deeper level. Tennis is such an individual sport, but these are the weeks that we can come together and have the same goal.”

The immediate goal is a place at the 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Finals although, on this occasion, there is certainly a wider, deeper context to the on-court action.