For the 14th time in the competition's history, France and the USA will contest a Fed Cup tie, this one to be played on indoor clay at the Arena Du Pays D'Aix in Aix-en-Provence, France. With an exceptionally deep squad that boasts three of the world's best players, the Americans are odds-on favorite to return to the final for a second straight year.
France, already faced with a very challenging task despite being at home, will be even heavier underdogs playing with only three players. Add to that the Americans holding an 11-2 lead over the French all-time in all Fed Cup competitions with the French Counter losing all seven of their meetings against the US on the red dirt.
Deep US team looks for back-to-back finals
Such is the Americans' depth that Venus Williams, who won both of her singles rubbers in the US' quarterfinal win over the Netherlands and Serena Williams, who made her official return to competitive tennis in Asheville, are not on the squad this time around.
The team is led by reigning Miami Open champion Sloane Stephens as well as Madison Keys, the hero of last year's final Coco Vandeweghe and the return of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, back in the competition for the first time since her horrific knee injury at last year's Wimbledon.
"It was horribly painful to miss last year’s final and that win, so making it through would be very special for me,” she said. “I watched the final at home in Phoenix, Arizona. Kathy invited me but I was still doing a lot of rehab so I couldn’t support them but I was watching.
"Fed Cup tennis is all about the team. I’m here whenever Kathy needs me, whether it’s subbing in for singles, play doubles, not play at all. It’s up to her. She does an amazing job and I’m here to be whatever she needs me to be".
Undermanned French side look to cause major shock, reach second final in last three years
Once again, captain Yannick Noah will only be able to call on three players: Kristina Mladenovic, the star of France's first-round win over Belgium, winning all three points, veteran Pauline Parmentier and youngster Amandine Hesse.
Noah is unlucky in that both Caroline Garcia and Alize Cornet are unavailable, the former choosing to prioritize her singles career while the latter is currently banned from playing in all official ITF competitions.
Mladenovic will need to replicate what she did in the previous round if the French stand any chance of pulling off the major upset and against this deep, confident American squad, that seems unlikely. Her only advantage is that she is playing on her favorite surface, clay.
Noah looked ahead to the contest: “There are different ways for matches to be tough. Sometimes it’s because you’re favourite and supposed to win, sometimes because you’re away from home, sometimes because you’re playing a good team.
"There’s always a difficulty," he added. "Pauline’s match [against Stephens] is very important. Against their No.1, she has nothing to lose. If she can win, I think we can win the whole thing.”
The opening rubber on Saturday sees Parmentier go up against Stephens. For the 32-year old Frenchwoman, she is in a major slump, having recorded one win in her last 10 matches and that was at the ITF level. By contrast Stephens is coming off of a second important title in the last six months with her victory in Key Biscayne. The head-to-head is 2-1 in favor of the American, but Parmentier's lone win was on clay in Strasbourg two years ago.
The second rubber promises to be a very competitive affair as Mladenovic faces Vandeweghe. Although the American has not had her best season on the dirt, she holds a lifetime 4-1 edge against the French number one with this being their first matchup on clay. Mladenovic won their last meeting in the first round of Wuhan in 2017.
The reverse singles will be played on Sunday with Mladenovic and Stephens squaring off and Parmentier clashing with Vandeweghe. The American number one has triumphed in both of her career meetings against Mladenovic, although those were in 2013 and Vandeweghe claiming a win over Parmentier in Melbourne last year.
This looks to be a complete mismatch. The Americans have so much depth that Keys is not even scheduled to play singles while Stephens, newly minted in the Top 10 after her Miami win will anchor the US squad. Vandeweghe has plenty of experience and won all three points in the final last year against Belarus and Mattek-Sands, long considered one of the best doubles players in the world, is back to boost the Americans' cause even further.
France can be encouraged that they have nothing to lose, particularly Pamrentier, who is not expected to win either of her matches and that despite the 0-7 all-time record on clay against their visitors is their best surface. If Mladenovic can repeat her performance of last round, the French have a chance. If not, they lack the depth, experience and talent to keep up with the defending champions.
All in all, the US should win this fairly comfortably with Rinaldi having the ability to make adjustments on Sunday if Vandeweghe or Stephens aren't playing well. This should help lead the Americans to consecutive finals for the first time since 2009-10.
Prediction: USA wins 4-0