By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
SAN DIEGO - Melanie Oudin is the always-smiling, upbeat teenager, who has an intense, competitive spirit and fight that she brings to every match. It was just last year that she began to make a name for herself in the professional tennis world with her magical run to the US Open quarterfinals.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands is the free-spirited, effervescent, 25-year-old veteran with a slight edge, including tattoos decorating one arm and a tendency to change her hair color and fashion depending on her mood. On the court, she plays best when she is calm and has a solid all-around game from court coverage to power.
Liezel Huber is now in the last years of her fabulous tennis career at age 34, with four Grand Slam tournament doubles titles and a current world No. 3 doubles ranking among her many accolades. She can relate to most things Mattek-Sands and Oudin are going through professionally and is a leader and player others look to for advice, as well as a dedicated humanitarian.
The three players could hardly be less alike in terms of their personalities, their styles on the tennis court and stages in their professional tennis careers. Yet these three have become the core of the U.S. Fed Cup Team and vital to its tremendous success the past two years, as their varying personal and professional differences have collectively become strengths and also turned into the bonds of lasting friendship.
Their next task together is trying to defeat Italy this weekend and bring the U.S. its first Fed Cup title since 2000.
"I think with us, wherever one of us is weak (in her game), someone else is strong, and I think that is what makes a team strong," Mattek-Sands said of their contrasting styles and why they work. "If everyone was good in one thing, we would be a one-sided team, so we bring a lot of different facets against all the other countries.
"Liezel is the one who has to be organized and on time. Me, I am go-with-the-flow. I am probably late more than I would like to be. I have gotten better at that," she added of their personalities. "When I am relaxed, I play well. It is not for everybody. Some people like to be more focused and pumped up. For me, the calmer I can be, the better I will go out there and play. And everyone knows each other’s style, too. Liezel likes to be pumped. I like to be relaxed. Mel has her own things she does before the matches. Everyone lets everyone do their own thing, supports everybody, and that is why we are a good team.
You would never catch Oudin, 19, or Huber with Mattek-Sands’ lotus flower tattoo on her right arm or change their blonde and brown hair, respectively, to vibrant red, or wear the high socks Mattek-Sands wears on the court. She was also once known best for her now infamous on-court outfits that included a cowboy hat, gold lame and leopard skin – things that are all now in the past. Now a blonde, she does still change around her hair color. On the other hand, Oudin and Huber cut and donated their formerly long hair to Locks of Love this summer in memory of a young friend of Huber’s who died from cancer. (Mattek-Sands cannot donate hers because it has dye).
Huber, a U.S. citizen who is a native of South Africa, has been married over 10 years. Mattek-Sands is approaching her second wedding anniversary. Oudin lives in the Atlanta home she grew up in with her parents and siblings. Huber has been playing professional tennis for 18 years and has spent most of the past few years as the world No. 1 in doubles. Mattek-Sands made her professional debut 11 years ago, while Oudin played in her first ITF Circuit event just four years ago and did not play a WTA Tour main-draw event until 2008.
It is their varying levels of experience and styles on the court that has put the U.S. team into the final in back-to-back years for the first time in 10 years. Having the kind of friendship on and off the court, as well as team chemistry and support between her players, is just what U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez wants to cultivate. It is also what the U.S. Davis Cup Team has had over the past few years under former Captain Patrick McEnroe between players like Andy Roddick, James Blake, Bob and Mike Bryan and Mardy Fish.
"I think they combine well. We have different ages, which maybe is a good thing, with Liezel being the veteran, the one that I think everybody really looks up to," Fernandez said. "She really sets such a good example on and off the court. Melanie, being the young one, is just a breath of fresh air. She is gung-ho about everything, excited about everything. Bethanie is quite a character.
"They practice well together. They really encourage each other. I’ve seen them doing it during Fed Cup and throughout the year," she added. "That’s what you really want to build. You sort of want to set that standard across the line, which is something I admire in what Patrick (McEnroe) was able to do with the men. You want that camaraderie and respect. I’ve seen that with this core group, which is nice."
It is special for the players to have that camaraderie throughout the year, as well, and not just during Fed Cup, where they have been on the team for each of the three ties this year. Seeing a friendly face at a tournament or someone to have dinner with always helps, and Huber and Mattek-Sands even teamed up for doubles for multiple tournaments this year, including reaching the Wimbledon semifinals.
They sent the U.S. to the Fed Cup Final both this year and last with victories in the semifinal doubles rubbers. This will be the first Fed Cup final for Mattek-Sands, who was injured for the U.S.’s 4-0 final loss to Italy last year.
Oudin is a newer friend to both Huber and Mattek-Sands, who have known each other for 11 years, but has no less of a special relationship with either. To Huber, Oudin is like a little sister.
"I think when you meet siblings you can see that they are similar but yet they have their own quirks, and I think that is how it feels with me, Melanie and Bethanie. We have joined up, and we are this family, yet we are so individual," Huber said. "The good thing is we can practice with each other. We can say, ‘Do you want to go to dinner?’ Or we can just joke around. It has really been an amazing experience, and it has really only happened over the last year. We have come together, and now we speak as if we are completely like sisters.
"Bethanie is a little closer to my age, and I have known her for a long time, but I have watched Mel’s progress all along, also," Huber said. "It is amazing when I sit back and look what they have accomplished so far in their young careers. It is nice to know that we are friends and that we will be friends. They come from such good backgrounds – their families, husbands, coaches – and we all just get along on the road. This experience has been like none other."
Oudin just met Mattek-Sands on the Fed Cup Team last year, but she respects her attitude and unique style, as well as the advice Huber offers – all things that have made them close.
"I just started knowing Bethanie from last year being on the team and then playing all the same tournaments as her, and we have meshed well together," Oudin said. "She is a really good friend now. She is different from a lot of people, but I think that is what makes her cool. Liezel has taught me a lot. Even when I was the new kid in town last year, my first Fed Cup, she really welcomed me to the team. And I think we have grown together, especially this year. Being on the team the whole year has helped us become a really good team and really respect each other, support each other in Fed Cup and other tournaments, as well."
As far as how their contrasting personalities, styles and life experience make them all seem like unlikely friends, Oudin has reflected on it before and come up with the same answer each time as to why they work so well together on and off the court.
"I say to my friends at home that our team is so different," she said. "I am 19, Bethanie is 25, and Liezel is 34. It definitely is different. We have a unique team. We have different game styles, but I think that is what makes us good."