What was already a highly anticipated event for tennis fans in Asheville was suddenly elevated to an international sports story on Tuesday afternoon with the news that Serena and Venus Williams are coming to town to play in the Fed Cup.
Tickets were already selling briskly for the Feb. 10-11 matches at U.S. Cellular Center, pitting the U.S. vs. The Netherlands in first-round play in the international team tennis competition for women.
But now the matches will be a sellout – if the event isn’t already - as it serves as the debut of Serena’s return to tennis after taking off the past 12 months to have her first baby.
Acclaimed by many as both the best female tennis player in history and by some as the top athlete ever, the 23-time Grand Slam winner – along with her older sister Venus, a former No. 1 with seven Grand Slam titles and still ranked fifth in the world – adds major cache to the event.
“I can’t speak to what happened in Asheville prior to my arrival five years ago, but this could be potentially one of the biggest events to ever come to Asheville,” said U.S. Cellular Center director Chris Corl.
“We’re going to be live on TV in 50 countries, and that’s a big deal.”
Corl said Tuesday night that only a couple hundred tickets remained for the Fed Cup prior to the news about the Williams sisters being on the team, along with CoCo Vanderweghe, ranked No. 9 in the world. Corl said he assumed those tickets will be gone by Wednesday morning.
“We’re obviously ecstatic about it. There’s probably going to be some changes in the players’ needs with this news, but as far as our preparation, we don’t think much will change.
“This was already going to be the biggest event we had in years if not ever, then you add the news that one of the best tennis players ever is coming here.”
Serena has not played in a sanctioned match since last year’s Australian Open, which she won while pregnant. Her daughter Olympia was born in September, and after playing in an exhibition in December she hoped to return to this year’s Australian Open, which currently being played.
But she announced prior to that tournament that she didn’t feel like she was match ready, and her appearance at the Fed Cup is expected to be her return to competitive tennis.
The sisters are familiar with the event – Serena is 16-1 in Fed Cup play in nine appearances since 1999, including an 11-0 mark in singles. Venus has played the event 12 times and is 23-4, 19-2 in singles.
Serena last played in the Fed Cup in 2015 and Venus played in the 2016 matches.
Lawson Duncan is an Asheville tennis legend who was once ranked in the top 50 in the world. He said he is excited about the news.
“It was going to be a good event anyway, but when you get two athletes like the Williams sisters, who have been at the top of the women’s games for the last 15-20 years, it just enhances the quality and the level of play.”
Duncan, 53, who reached the quarterfinals of the 1989 French Open, said Asheville was very fortunate to get such a draw.
“Usually when someone like the Williams sisters – especially Serena – plays, it is at a larger venue, so it’s good for Asheville that she decided to come her to begin her comeback.”