Sweden faces the mother of all tests this weekend in its attempt to reach the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group for the first time since 2003 – with a daunting clash against a USA side led by Serena and Venus Williams.
World No. 1 Serena and No. 21 Venus feature in the same Fed Cup team for only the second time since 2007 in a impressive line-up that includes four players ranked inside the top 30, with No. 16 Sloane Stephens and No. 27 Varvara Lepchenko completing Mary Joe Fernandez’s squad.
If the strength of the opposition wasn’t enough to strike fear into Lars-Anders Wahlgren’s travelling Swedes, the tie is being played on the outdoor hard courts of the Delray Beach Tennis Center, as close to home as you could possibly get for the Williams sisters who live barely half an hour’s drive away in Palm Beach Gardens.
“We love playing at home, of course,” said Venus. “This is our third tie in Delray, and I'm sure there will be more that will come here. It's like awesome for us.”
“Playing at home is huge and having that proximity,” added captain Fernandez. “Having Serena around the corner, I'm from down here and there is a training center for the USTA in Boca, is great. Sloane and sometimes Varvara spend time here as well.”
On the road for the second straight tie, Sweden’s hopes of causing a huge upset centre around world no. 54 Sofia Arvidsson and No. 66 Johanna Larsson, with two players ranked outside the top 400, Hilda Melander and Sandra Roma, completing the squad.
But despite its players lowly individual rankings, Sweden is not a team to be underestimated having come back from 2-0 down to defeat Argentina in the intimidating surrounds of Parque Roca in the World Group II first round. Fernandez, for one, is not blind to the possibility of an upset even with her star names on show.
“You can never overlook anyone,” insisted the USA captain. “We've been the underdogs many times and have come through with the big upset. In Fed Cup, or any time you play for a team, it's different. The pressures are different. Someone that you expect to win might deal with the pressure differently. And sometimes someone who plays for their country sometimes plays better than when on the tour. It can vary.”
Serena has lost just one set in 11 appearances for her country, but the world No. 1 insists she isn’t free of nerves when on Fed Cup duty.
“I think in general I feel a little bit of pressure when I'm playing for the team because I want to be able to do really well,” said the 15-time Grand Slam champion. “You're not just playing for yourself. You don't want to let your friends and your team down.”
This weekend’s clash is just the fifth World Group play-off 17-time champion USA has ever had to contest, with the nation holding a 3-1 record in those ties. The hosts hold the same advantage in past-meetings with Sweden, although the visitors did win the last battle between the two teams back in 1988.
But buoyed by their first round heroics, the Swedish team is in high spirits going into the tie even with the odds firmly stacked against them ahead of their first World Group play-off since losing 4-1 to Japan in 2003.
“We are extremely happy to be here,” said Larsson. “It's what we have been fighting for so many years, to get a match like this and to get up to the World Group.
“We all see ourselves as underdogs, [but] It's Fed Cup. Everything is possible.”