World rankings might be nice to boast about, but sometimes they work in your favor and other times they’re rendered meaningless to the outcome of a match.
In the first match of this weekend’s Fed Cup World Group Playoff tie at the Delray Beach Tennis Center, the rankings didn’t hold to form. The 54th-ranked Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden, a 29-year-old with years of Fed Cup participation, upset 16th-ranked Sloane Stephens 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 to give Sweden a 1-0 lead.
“First match is always important,” said Arvidsson, after giving her team an early lead. “You want to win and put a lot of pressure on the other team.”
But after a lengthy rain delay, No. 1 Serena Williams proved again why she is the best player in the world when she pummeled 66th-ranked Johanna Larsson 6-2, 6-2 in a match scheduled for the day, but played under the lights.
That left the U.S. and Sweden tied at 1-1 going into Sunday’s two reverse singles matches and one doubles match.
“I learned early on in my career that rankings go out the window when it comes to Fed Cup,” said U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez, who grew up in Miami. “I learned that when I was on teams that were the underdogs that sometimes people thrive on that pressure.”
Williams, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, has never lost a Fed Cup match, winning all nine singles matches and the three doubles matches she’s played. She’s only ever lost one set in Fed Cup action.
When it comes to Fed Cup, Larsson has more overall experience with an overall Fed Cup record of 37-22, but that didn’t amount to much of a factor in her first career meeting against Williams.
“It’s definitely an experience for me today,” the 24-year-old Larsson said. “I had a lot fun out there. I thought I had a few chances, especially in the beginning of the second set. I had a few break points.”
Williams saved all three break point opportunities that she offered to Larsson and put up 31 outright winners to just nine for the Swede.
As for the 20-year-old Stephens’ loss, it wasn’t all that surprising. She was playing in her first ever Fed Cup singles match and was given the added responsibility of trying to win the first of five matches of the weekend.
It turned out to be too big a task for Stephens, who grew up in-and-around Broward County and still maintains a family home in Coral Springs, although she spends much of her time in Los Angeles.
Explaining how it all went wrong, Stephens said, “Definitely I don’t think for me it wasn’t the lead off match. I think it was playing my first live [match] at home. I think it was more that rather than setting the tone for the team. Obviously, either way, it was tough for me to get out and play first. I think you just learn from it.”
The two had played before and were even at 1-1 coming into Saturday’s match. However, Stephens, who reached the Australian Open semifinal in January, had beaten Arvidsson in straight sets at the Brisbane, Australia tournament ahead of the Australian Open.
Unlike Stephens, the 29-year-old Arvidsson is a seasoned veteran of the Fed Cup competition, the largest annual international women’s team competition in sport with 97 countries taking part this year. This is the 48th Fed Cup tie that Arvidsson has played and she has a 48-35 overall record — 34-22 in singles matches — in the competition.
“Obviously, she’s played a lot of Fed Cups,” Stephens said of Arvidsson. “Definitely tough losing to her. At least I played someone that really knew what they were doing.”
On Sunday, they will finish the tie with two reverse singles matches and a doubles match where Varvara Lepchenko and Venus Williams will play Arvidsson and Larsson.