Could there be a bigger honor for an athlete than representing her country in competition?
The focus of the WTA Tour shifts this week to Fed Cup. For those of you who may not know, Fed Cup is a team competition in which countries compete against one another for the honor to hold up the Federation Cup in November.
As an honored member of Team USA, I'm in Florida to compete against Belgium this weekend. My fellow team members are Venus and Serena Williams and my doubles partner, Vania King -- a starting lineup with which our coach, Zina Garrison, is surely happy. Belgium's top two players, Justin Henin and Kim Clijsters, were unable to play this tie, making the U.S. the favorite on home soil.
This will be my seventh time playing Fed Cup, a stat of which I am extremely proud. I have played alongside some of the great ones -- Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport, to name a few -- and been coached by the legendary Billie Jean King.
Some of my most cherished tennis memories are from Fed Cup weeks. One of my greatest is one that still haunts me. It was the 1998 semifinal against a heavily favored Spanish squad, and the match was being played in Madrid. We were even with Spain at 2-2, and the tie came down to the deciding rubber in doubles. It was Mary Jo Fernandez and me against the two Fed Cup goddesses of Spain, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez.
We battled until 1:30 a.m. on the slow red clay in front of thousands of enthusiastic Spaniards. In the end, we lost the match 11-9 in the third set, bringing our opponents to their knees in celebration as we stood there, shattered. Afterwards, we sat in the locker room trying to console one another as tears flowed freely, while the drums outside beat loudly as fans chanted in exhilaration. It is a memory I will forever cherish in spite of coming out on the losing end.
But being a part of the Cup-winning 2000 team was even better. Playing alongside Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Seles, we captured the Cup at home in Las Vegas, and what a thrill that was -- all four of us, running around the court, waving the American flag as the fans cheered. That's one I would love to repeat!
In an individual sport like tennis, we don't often get moments to play on a team and experience the bonding and camaraderie that exists in other sports. Working together towards a common goal and striving for something much bigger than a personal victory is part of why Fed Cup is so special.
It's a week filled not only with blood, sweat and tears, but numerous "perks" that make it even more incredible. We stay at beautiful hotels and relax in player lounges stocked with gossip mags, Diet Cokes and healthy snacks. We have a team doctor, physio, massage therapist, p.r. staff, stringer, team manager, even our own security (Pete and Tom Pistone, the best in the biz!).
Even though the amenities are enticing, the best part of Fed Cup, without a doubt, is the honor of playing for your country. Nothing compares to that feeling. It truly is an amazing week. New friendships are formed while old bonds are made stronger. There's plenty of laughter, shared stories and team bonding -- all before the competition even begins.
When you march out onto the court, hand on heart as The Star-Spangled Banner plays, the three letters written across your back take on a whole new meaning. There are constant chants of "USA!" which make goose bumps cover your body. That's what Fed Cup is all about.
On Saturday, I will look to my bench and smile. To my left will be two women whose impact has transcended the sport and rewritten history. To my right, the future of American tennis as well as a coach who provides the glue that binds us together. I can't wait.