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Saddlebrook takes center court as Fed Cup host

WESLEY CHAPEL — After the U.S. Fed Cup tennis team dominated Germany in a February quarterfinal, it learned the semifinal opponent would be a Czech Republic squad that thrives on hard courts.

With the home country getting to pick its surface, U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi quickly figured the semifinals had best be on green clay. And the United States Tennis Association had to pick a location that could fulfill that need, along with plenty of others, and do it all in quick order.

Enter Saddlebrook.

"The USTA approached us. Kind of a nice accolade to have there," said Kevin O'Connor, Saddlebrook president of international sports.

After that phone call, and a visit from USTA senior director of team events Jeff Ryan and other officials, the selection was made.

"In the tennis world, Saddlebrook is part of the landscape," Ryan said Monday.

Tennis fans will see an even more spruced-up landscape this weekend. A 3,000-seat stadium built to specifications will host the Fed Cup, the top international women's team event.

The result belies what went into the stadium's development. Three weeks ago there were no seats, no structures and no Har-Tru classic green clay. The USTA shipped in the entire surface, laying it on top of what members might still recognize as the Walking Village.

"We had to move some things around. Knock down a water fountain or two," said Rob Riehle, director of media for Saddlebrook. "Brand-new court. We tore it down to the subterrain. But it's gone extremely smoothly."

It's been an all-hands approach at Saddlebrook, which is used to holding major events, and not just of the sports variety. Having a 550-room hotel on the property — forget about getting a room this week, they're all gone — certainly aided the resort's cause in hosting the Fed Cup.

The long-standing relationship with the USTA, which stems back to Saddlebrook hosting its junior development program, hit another highlight in January with the successful hosting of a second straight circuit challenger event.

"The USTA gives a report card, and we scored pretty high," O'Connor said. "They saw we were ready to host a big event, and we felt very good that something like (Fed Cup) could be coming."

Shelby Rogers, last year's top seed at the challenger, happens to be a part of the Fed Cup squad. Play begins Saturday with two singles matches at 11:30, but pre-match ceremonies start at 10:30.

Doors open at 9:30 a.m. Sunday with reverse singles to start around 10:30. Doubles comprises the fifth match, with the first country to three victories clinching the tie and spot in the championship match. Switzerland and Belarus play in the other semi.

CocCo Vandeweghe (world rank an event-high No. 24), Lauren Davis and Bethanie Mattek-Sands join Rogers for the American squad while Katerina Siniakova (No. 38), Kristyna Pliskova, Denisa Allertova and Marketa Vondrousova represent the Czechs.

Those who frequent the resort won't see the normal parking lot, as it's taken up by the area surrounding the stadium.

"For us, it's not that big of a deal. This is a big place. We have lots of places to hide cars," O'Connor said. "Overall this has been a matter of our kind of expertise for staging big events, combined with the USTA."

For the youngsters who attend Saddlebrook's prep academy, it has been more of an eye opener, including some getting to test out the court with Rinaldi, a first-time team captain. Several will get to be ball kids for the matches.

It will all be on display for a national — and international — audience via the Tennis Channel.

"This will be great exposure for us, the kind that's hard to get. And hopefully we'll be more likely to have a tournament in the future," Riehle said.

Fed Cup semifinals

Who: United States vs. Czech Republic

When/where: Action starts 11:30 a.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m. Sunday; Saddlebrook Resort, a mile east of Interstate 75 at Exit 279, Wesley Chapel

Tickets: $30-$75 per day, $60-$150 for two-day pass; ticketmaster.com or call toll-free 1-888-334-8782

Parking: $15 per vehicle per day. There will be a shuttle from various lots onsite to the tennis venue.

Saddlebrook takes center court as Fed Cup host 04/19/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 19, 2017 5:49pm]
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