By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
It is another year and another U.S. vs. Italy Fed Cup Final.
This one is a little different, with the U.S. now holding home-court advantage on a fast, indoor hardcourt in San Diego in comparison to the slow, red outdoor clay from last November, when the team lost to Italy, 4-0, in Reggio Calabria. The Italian team is exactly the same, but there are a few changes to the U.S. team that is trying to bring home the Fed Cup title for the first time since 2000.
This is also the first time the U.S. has hosted the Fed Cup Final since the 2000 victory, as well as the first time it has reached the final in back-to-back years since the title-winning teams of 1999 and 2000.
U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez has groomed a core group of players this year for her team in Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Liezel Huber. All three were on the team for the 4-1 quarterfinal win over France and then the 3-2 come-from-behind win over Russia in the semifinals in April.
Last year, the semifinal hero was Alexa Glatch, who won two singles rubbers against the Czech Republic to send the team to the final in Reggio Calabria.
This year, the semifinal hero was Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who won the fourth singles rubber and was part of the winning doubles team (with Huber) that cemented the U.S. team’s victory over Russia. In fact, she became the first player in U.S. Fed Cup team history to win consecutive live matches to clinch a tie victory.
Each hero earned a spot on the team for the respective final based on her sensational performance. Oudin and Huber were also on the 2009 final team, along with Vania King.
This year, Oudin, Huber and Mattek-Sands, as well as teenager Coco Vandeweghe, in her U.S. Fed Cup team debut, will face the defending champions in 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.
There are certain factors in the U.S. team’s favor, with now a friendly as opposed to hostile crowd and a fast court in comparison to the already slow clay that turned almost snail-like after a day of rain interrupted the second singles match between Oudin and Schiavone. The American was winning the match before the skies opened, and the Italian returned from the delay rejuvenated, upping her game and aggressiveness. There is no fear of that happening again this year, with the venue an indoor court at the San Diego Sports Arena.
"I feel a lot different, because last year when we were away, it was the first final we’ve (the U.S.) been in in a long time," Oudin said. "The conditions were absolutely terrible. It was like we were playing on mud. The ball did not bounce. The crowd and everything, it just seemed to play out like everything was against us and for them.
"But this year I’m a lot smarter of a player, I’m more mature, and I think if I play, I know what to expect from them more," she added. "I think this surface is gonna suit our whole team a lot better than the surface did last year."
However, even with a hospitable crowd and court, the U.S. will once again be the underdog against the Italian team, which does not feature a player ranked outside the top 45, while the U.S. team does not feature a singles player ranked inside the top 45. This is also the fourth time in five years that Italy has reached the Fed Cup final.
Schiavone has had a career year at age 30 and is the No. 7 player in the world. Pennetta’s ranking has dipped a little to No. 23, but she was in the top 10 just last year and is No. 2 in the world in doubles. In fact ,with partner Gisela Dulko, Pennetta just won the season-ending WTA Championships in doubles. In singles, Vinci and Errani are not too far behind Schiavone and Pennetta at No. 38 and No. 42, respectively.
The Italians no doubt have tremendous experience as players and as a team – this is their sixth straight Fed Cup tie together – are just as dangerous in doubles as they are in singles and are strong hardcourt players. Pennetta, in fact, has had her best Grand Slam results on the US Open hardcourts, where she has twice reached the quarterfinals.
"Both Pennetta and Schiavone have gotten better the older they’ve become. I think the fact they’ve played together for so long now has helped," Fernandez said. "They have really good games. They’re both all-court players but with different styles. Schiavone hits a heavy topspin, can slice, great athlete, tremendous variety. Pennetta is an all-court player but solid as a rock. Not a lot of weaknesses.
"I think that combination of different game styles with the consistency has won them a lot of Fed Cup ties," she added. "Errani and Vinci are solid, too, and they all play good doubles. They really complement each other well. I think that’s why we’re seeing them in the final again."
Oudin, Mattek-Sands and Huber also complement each other well, and adding Vandeweghe, 18, to the mix only gives the team more flexibility and variety, allowing them to give the Italian team a potentially different look for each match.
Mattek-Sands has a great all-court game, stemming from her great doubles ability, as she can play behind the baseline or come to net very well. Oudin has tremendous speed and fight, while Vandeweghe brings more of a power game at 6-foot-1, with an especially strong serve. Huber, as the world No. 3 in doubles, always brings her best tennis and loves the opportunity to clinch a tie.
With Mattek-Sands at No. 58 and Oudin at No. 67, they seem the likely two candidates to play singles for the U.S., with Mattek-Sands and Huber likely to once again team up for doubles, based on their prior success and rankings. (Mattek-Sands is No. 17 in the world in doubles.)
But Fernandez always waits until the day before the draw ceremony, when both captains announce their lineups for the weekend, to make her final decisions after seeing everyone in practice throughout the week, and she can still do tweaking throughout the weekend.
It is definitely possible that Vandeweghe, who has surged up the rankings this year to No. 114, will see some action. She is also quite familiar with the workings of Fed Cup, having traveled with the team multiple times in the past few years as a Future Fed Cupper and practice partner.
Vandeweghe reached the quarterfinals at the Mercury Insurance Open this summer on the Olympus US Open Series, including defeating current world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva along the way, as part of her great play that earned her a spot on the team.
She is the first player to make her U.S. Fed Cup team debut in a final since Chanda Rubin made her debut in the 1995 final against Spain, where she went 1-1 in singles matches.
"I feel she adds a great style to the game because she has a big serve, big, heavy groundstrokes, and she can slice," Fernandez said of Vandeweghe. "So it just gives us a different sort of game to have. So we have Melanie, very solid. We have Bethanie, who is an all-court player. With Coco added to the mix, it gives us a little bit of variety."
And while the lineups and matchups are still to be determined, one thing is for certain: The U.S. team wants the title and will fight for it down to the last point.
"It’s a challenge," Fernandez said. "We’re looking forward to it and hoping we can turn things around this time."