By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - A United States victory over Belarus this weekend to claim a first Fed Cup title in 17 years would cap a dominant end to the 2017 season for America's women and provide a springboard into next year.
After sweeping all four semi-final spots at the U.S. Open, the United States, led by Flushing Meadows champion Sloane Stephens and world number 10 CoCo Vandeweghe, arrived in Minsk as heavy favourites to clinch their first Fed Cup since a 5-0 victory over Spain in 2000.
Even without the services of fifth-ranked Venus Williams and sister Serena, who is taking time off after having her first child, the U.S. appear to have a considerable edge on a Belarus squad that is contesting the final for the first time.
The hosts will also be without their leader -- twice Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka.
Instead Belarus will rely on 78th ranked Aryna Sabalenka, world number 87 Aliaksandra Sasnovich and the boisterous backing of a home crowd at the 9,000 seat Chizhovka Arena to pull off an upset.
"I was there for three weeks at the U.S. Open watching the American women," said U.S. captain Kathy Rinaldi during a conference call from Minsk on Wednesday. "To have four in the semis, and when Sloane won, obviously extremely happy for her.
"You look all the way down the line, we're very strong.
"We've had several players really step up. We have a lot of young players stepping up, even younger than the juniors coming up. It's a very exciting time for women's tennis in the U.S..
"I think it's going to be a great 2018."
The immediate priority, however, is putting a bow on 2017 and wrapping up an 18th Fed Cup title that may not be as straightforward as the rankings indicate.
Stephens has yet to win a match in three events since capturing the season's final grand slam.
Vandeweghe, however, comes into the tie riding a wave of good form having reached the final of the WTA Elite Trophy in China last week to crack the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time.
Bidding to become the first U.S. captain to guide a team to a Fed Cup title in their first year since Marty Riessen in 1986, Rinaldi has left no stone unturned, even seeking advice from tennis great Billie Jean King.
"I reached out to Billie," admitted Rinaldi. "Being a female captain, and (her) winning it, I really wanted to pick her brain and just have a good chat with her.
"It would mean a lot obviously for these girls to win this and to be the next female coach since Billie. It would be an honour."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)