MINSK, Belarus — Sloane Stephens is back on the United States team for the Fed Cup final, and Victoria Azarenka is missing for Belarus.
That alone gives the early advantage to the Americans.
Stephens, who won the U.S. Open this year for her first major title, missed the opening two rounds of the international team competition because of a foot injury. But she is back and will be playing alongside CoCo Vandeweghe, Shelby Rogers and Alison Riske in the best-of-five series this weekend in Minsk.
“I’m happy to be back playing and happy the team made the finals,” the 13th-ranked Stephens said Wednesday. “It’s awesome I can be on this team.”
The United States is looking to win the Fed Cup for the first time in 17 years, while Belarus is playing in the final for the first time.
Stephens hasn’t played in the Fed Cup since the 2016 quarterfinals, but she said it’s been “no problem at all” slipping back onto the squad.
“Obviously, I’ve known these girls since I was 12-13 years old, so we’re all really good friends,” Stephens said. “It’s easy to be with girls you like, girls you have fun with and girls you’ve been around for a really long time.”
Stephens didn’t play from the 2016 Olympics through Wimbledon in 2017 and underwent foot surgery during that period. She arrived in Minsk after not winning any of the four matches she’s played since her surprise U.S. Open victory. She retired with a knee injury from her last match against Barbora Strycova in China last week.
Vandeweghe, in her first week at a career-high No. 10 ranking, won two Fed Cup singles points against Germany in the quarterfinals, and two singles and the doubles points against the Czech Republic in the semifinals.
But the U.S. Open semifinalist said she knows very little about this weekend’s competition, having never played Aryna Sabalenka, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Vera Lapko or Lidziya Marozava.
“I feel like I’m coming in with wool over my eyes a little bit,” Vandeweghe said.
Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, is not playing in the final because of an ongoing custody dispute with the father of her infant son.
If U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi wins the title, she would be the first female to do so since Billie Jean King led the Americans to the last of their record 17 titles in 2000.
“It would be a great honor to be named as another female (champion) captain alongside Billie Jean,” said Rinaldi, who is in her first year as captain. “I spoke to Billie Jean before I came over. She had some very inspiring words for me.”