EVERETT — Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the veteran American doubles player, talked this week of the energy that permeates when you’re playing for your country.
She meant the kind she generates herself — “to be honest,’’ she said, “I play for the stars and stripes every week”” — and that extra bit which she feeds off from the fans.
When it comes to the Fed Cup, which hit Angel of the Winds Arena on Friday night with a vengeance for the first of two days of action between the United States and Latvia women, the staid sensibility of the sport is out the window.
“I hope they know they can be rowdy during Fed Cup,’’ Mattek-Sands, winner of five Grand Slam doubles titles, had said pointedly Thursday.
That word apparently filtered out, because the sold-out crowd rippled with enthusiasm and energy all night. The fans seemed to be responding on two levels — with a patriotic fervor, and with an aesthetic appreciation for the incredibly high level of performance.
“I’ve played in front of a lot of crowds,” Serena Williams, the reigning — and eternal — queen of women’s tennis said afterward, addressng the fans. “But I don’t think I’ve ever played in front of a crowd this loud. Thank you so much.”
The final match, in particular, was glorious tennis, filled with tension and cacophony, as Williams needed a pair of tiebreakers to defeat Jelena Ostapenko 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-4).
“It was a really great crowd,” Williams reiterated in her post-match press conference. “We were talking about it in the locker room — it was so loud. We’re not used to it being that loud. It was so good to see, especially in the Fed Cup.”
The night was imbued with the requisite amount of pomp and circumstance to set the tone, including drum lines, fireworks, thundersticks, blasts of steam, the University of Washington cheer squad and a mascot dubbed “ace.” And fans responded with enthusiasm from the start, as Sofia Kenin, fresh off her Australian Open breakthrough win last weekend, dispatched Anastasija Sevastova with ease in an hour and eight minutes, 6-2, 6-2.
Afterward, Kenin talked about how much the crowd, which exhorted her by name in between points, had spurred her on. Kenin used her on-court interview to urge them to do the same for the woman she called “the goat” — Williams, who played in the nightcap against Latvian No. 1 Ostapenko to a rapturous reception.
“The crowd really helped get me pumped,” Kenin said. “Obviously, I was a little nervous coming in after Australia. I felt tired, but I tried to get that out of my mind and do what I do best.”
A day earlier, Kenin had thanked Williams for the robust workout that helped invigorate her and knock out the jet lag from the long flight from Australia. The crowd, she said, finished the job.
“I love playing in front of them,’’ said Kenin. “It’s so good. The Fed Cup is so different. They get really excited after every point.”
And Kenin, playing with a newly designed red, white and blue racket, gave them much to be excited about with a succession of dazzling shots that repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet. Also rising in passionate support at regular intervals were her American teammates, seated courtside on folding chairs, and team captain Kathy Rinaldi, seated even closer on a bench. Coco Gauff, the 15-year old prodigy and first-time Fed Cup member who currently is not scheduled to play either day, even sported a small set of pom-poms, which she took obvious pleasure in waving.
Asked the difference in playing in a Grand Slam final compared to playing for Team USA, Kenin replied, “There are still nerves, but a different kind of nerves. Looking at Kathy and my teammates and also my dad sitting there, it’s such a team atmosphere. I really wanted to start off well.”
This is arguably the most significant tennis match to ever hit the region, and the crowd responded in kind. A group of fans sat center court adorned in flag shirts. American doubles player Alison Riske appeared to be wiping away tears after a rousing version of the national anthem, and the intensity rarely waned thereafter.
Latvia was represented as well with pockets of supporters sporting signs and flags. After the U.S. team was introduced, a loud cry of “Latvia!” punctuated the arena. That was countered throughout the match with periodic bursts of “USA!”
There was no doubt who the main attraction was, though. Raucous cheers followed Serena wherever she went, starting with her prematch introduction. The reading of her list of accomplishments practically qualified as oration — 23 Grand Slam singles titles, four Olympic gold medals, 319 weeks as the world’s No. 1 player, and a 14-0 record in Fed Cup matches.
Even at age 38, Williams still exuded power and grace — with an emphasis on power. But Ostapenko pushed her to the brink in a pair of tense, back-and-forth sets as Serena had spells of inconsistency. Seemingly on the verge of risking her first-ever Fed Cup defeat, Williams called upon her legendary will. When she finally got a service break at 5-5 in the final set, the crowd let out the biggest roar of the night, then segued into a full-throated chant of “USA! USA!”
But Serena was unable to put the match away, running into service issues to drop the next game and force another tiebreaker. Down 2 points to none in the tiebreaker, she unleashed a series of spectacular points, punctuated, at last, by her trademark guttural roar.
“I’ve got to do that at least once,” she said with a smile, and later explained why the Fed Cup is different, and special, even after all these years. The answer helps explain her perfect record, now 14-0.
“You’re not just playing for yourself,” she said. “You’re playing for your team, and for your country. It’s a different atmosphere to have your coach next to you. You don’t want to let her down. I’ve always felt that way. I want to go out and do well. And then you have your teammates. You can’t let them down, either.”
For fans who have been waiting nearly 15 years for Williams’ return visit to the Pacific Northwest, there was certainly no letdown. It was the perfect capper for a rowdy, rousing night.
“She’s the goat, no doubt about it,” said Rinaldi. “And she proved it again tonight.”