Thereafter, I followed her swift ascendancy in the women’s game as she became the youngest quarterfinalist at the French Open in 1981 when she was 14 years and two-and-a-half months old. As they say, Rinaldi kept on keeping on, reaching the semifinal of Wimbledon in 1985, finishing 1986 at No. 9 in the world (after rising to a career high of No. 7), toppling the likes of Steffi Graf and Hana Mandlikova over the course of her distinguished career.
But more recently Rinaldi has been deeply devoted to the field of coaching, and has done extraordinary work in that capacity. She currently is Lead National Coach, Team USA—Pro Women for USTA Player Development. In 2012 and 2014, she was coach for the victorious U.S. 16-and-under Fed Cup teams, and she displayed impressive leadership skills in coaching the U.S. women in the 2015 Pan-American Games. Moreover, in 2009 and 2010, Rinaldi coached the 14-and-under American contingents to triumphs in the World Junior Tennis competition. On top of that, back in 2006 when Zina Garrison was the American Fed Cup captain, Rinaldi was the coach for the U.S.
Given Rinaldi’s excellent background as a player and coach, it was unsurprising and fitting that she would be chosen by the USTA to succeed Mary Joe Fernandez as the Fed Cup captain. Her credentials were outstanding. Her reputation as a straight-shooter with unshakable values and a clear-eyed vision of how to handle the captaincy is unassailable. Her fundamental decency and deep integrity are defining traits. Rinaldi is a player’s captain who knows what they need and understands how to provide it.
We spoke by phone last week, and I asked at the outset of our talk if she saw the captaincy coming. How surprised was she when suddenly it was front and center on her agenda?
Replies Rinaldi, “I didn’t see it coming but when Mary Joe stepped down I definitely threw my name in the hat, knowing that it was going to be tough because I am sure there were many worthy candidates for the job. Loving what I have been doing with the USTA and really enjoying the coaching and working with the players, it means so much to me and I am super excited and humbled to be part of Team USA and to be named captain.”
There has been a reshaping and expansion of the captaincy and all that it entails. Now Rinaldi will have the opportunity to make her new position more far reaching, How appealing and demanding is it for Rinaldi to juggle her many responsibilities and simultaneously give the Fed Cup captaincy everything she has? Rinaldi answers, “It kind of goes hand in hand with what I have been doing. I have been working with a lot of players when they were younger. And then the USTA decided last year to start the Team USA initiative which Tom Gullikson heads up for the men and I head up for the women, so we have been building the relationship with the players. I have been at some of the tournaments at every level already and will be spending a lot more time supporting the top players. I am still working for Player Development and will continue working with the Team USA initiative. I go to some tournaments with the juniors but mostly [have worked] with the transition pros over the past year and am at some WTA events as well with the pros.”
How significant has her wide range of coaching roles with the USTA been in her mind as she embarks on a new journey as the Fed Cup captain? She responds, “I am grateful to the USTA for the opportunity to work for them and give back to the sport. I have worked at every level, starting with a lot of the junior players. A lot of these juniors are in the pros or coming up in the pros, so I have learned so much. I am very grateful to the colleagues that I work with because we have some great coaches. With Team USA we are much more inclusive with the private sector. I have gained a lot of experience through coaching players regularly at every level. And I have been able to form relationships with players. Being there with them and supporting them has made a big difference to me. Being captain felt like a natural fit to me. I am very fortunate.”
One of the chief challenges for Rinaldi will be getting all of the leading players to commit when she needs then, from the Williams sisters to Madison Keys and so on down the line. Rinaldi says, “I know Venus and Serena from when I played and I practiced with them when I was younger. I am a huge supporter and admire them both so much. They are incredible role models not just for American tennis but for tennis in general. Look at what they have accomplished in their long careers. We would love to have them in Fed Cup this year. But they have a lot of demands off the court.
Hopefully when everyone is called they will serve. I have known Madison Keys since she was 14 so I really know everybody when it comes to the top players. I have had great support from them. I look to support all of these girls and women and I truly care about them on and off the court. They have given me so much and have touched my life greatly. I am looking to impact them on and off the court. If I can do that, then I think I will be successful. Since I was named captain, I have met with a lot of players face to face and have talked to all the top players.”
At the moment, no less than 16 American women reside among the top 100 in the world on the WTA computer rankings. How does Rinaldi feel about that kind of depth for the U.S. in the worldwide game? She asserts,”You want to put the best and strongest team forward as captain. It is just an amazing group of players and young ladies that we have and we have a lot of players coming up the pipeline as well. It is a good situation for us to be in.”
The last time the U.S. captured the Fed Cup was in 2000. Both the USTA and Rinaldi are determined to put the American women back into strong contention. They want to win the Cup back, and are determined to make it happen as soon as possible. How does Rinaldi envision the path leading toward an American resurrection?
She replies, “Mary Joe Fernandez is a friend of mine. As a player, person and captain I have so much respect for her. There are always challenges but opportunities as well. With the depth of American tennis, that is going to give us more opportunities in Fed Cup. I look forward to the challenge. We have a tough one coming up in February in Maui against Germany, with Kerber as the No 1 ranked player representing them. They also have a solid showing in the top 100 as well. It is a tough start for us but we are going to work hard and have some fun out there and do our best.”
Rinaldi alluded to something that is crucial in understanding her and what she stands for. She is earnest, very serious about her goals and priorities, and a top of the line professional. But she also has a beguiling sense of humor, and that will put her in good stead with the Fed Cup players who sometimes need a release from the rigors of competition. Rinaldi knows how to put it all on the line as a player, coach or captain. And yet, she rightly recognizes that a little laughter can go a long way for competitors surrounded by pressure all year long. Is rolling with the punches and having a good sense of humor something that will make her more productive?
Rinaldi responds, “I am hoping that will serve me well. These girls mean so much to me. It is hard not to get choked up by this. I am going to go for it. I will be working hard for the players and working with their coaches and hopefully we can share some success together. This is certainly not about me. It is about bringing the Fed Cup back to the U.S. and all of us having that one goal together and having each other’s backs.”
She has been in contact with Fernandez, and Rinaldi is appreciative of her friend’s private advise on the captaincy and how the role should be handled. Rinaldi says, ” Mary Joe has been wonderful. She has called me and I am sure I will be speaking with her more. To have that support has been great. Obviously what we have talked about is between friends. She has been extremely supportive and she is there if I have any questions or need anything. We are similar in a lot of ways but I would hope I can put my own mark on it, however that is.”
One complicated facet of the captaincy is making certain to recognize that the personal coaches of the players must be understood. It is up to Rinaldi to reinforce what they have projected to their players without getting in the way. That is easier said than done, but Rinaldi has a keen understanding of how to deal with that issue.
“It is important for me to know my boundaries and to work with the coaches. There is a lot of knowledge there to tap into and I respect them. It is important for me to work with the coaches. That is how you learn and grow. The players need to know that I am united with their team and I am there to support their team for the common goal of these players during Fed Cup week, but also outside the Fed Cup. That means a lot to me.”
Another meaningful part of the job for Rinaldi will be her relationships with the USTA brass, including President Katrina Adams and the invaluable Stacey Allaster, Chief Executive, Professional Tennis. Both women will bolster Rinaldi considerably with their wisdom. As Rinaldi points out, “Katrina is a friend of mine and I have known her since I was a teenager. We have even played some doubles together. She is doing a terrific job. And Stacy coming on board is wonderful. She is one that I speak to regularly so I have two strong women there to call upon, which is always great to have in your corner.”
Rinaldi will head straight from Melbourne to Hawaii for the U.S. contest against Germany. She explains, “It is right after the Australian Open that we play Germany. I will be going to Australia and will be there until the end, helping the qualifiers all the way through to the second week, and that includes the juniors as well. I will then be heading to Hawaii to prepare. There is a lot to do and I have already gotten a lot of good feedback. I am working on things already.”
And so the interview is reaching a conclusion. Rinaldi has come across as I have always known her—with sincerity, high ideals, no affectation and plenty of humility. She should become a first rate Fed Cup captain. What are her final thoughts on the American Fed Cup quest and how to build a bright future for the U.S. women?
“I am extremely excited,” she says.”The great thing about these Fed Cup weeks that I look forward to the most is the players all coming together and really getting to know each other. It is the little things off the court that you tend to remember, and winning of course makes it all more fun. That is what I really enjoy. That is what the coaching and captaincy is really all about for me. We are going to win some and lose some, but it is about doing it together and hopefully for me making a difference in some little way to help these players.”