By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Before play began on the last day of the 2010 Fed Cup Final, U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez brought a special guest into the locker room to talk to her team, someone who could relate to the all the emotions that playing for one’s country inspires.
It was the former U.S. Fed Cup Captain and legendary Billie Jean King, who was the captain when Fernandez herself was a player on the team, and who received the Fed Cup Award of Excellence before the matches.
With the U.S. in a 0-2 hole heading into play, King reminded Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, CoCo Vandeweghe and Liezel Huber that in the very first Fed Cup back in 1963, the U.S. was down four match points but came back to defeat Italy – also the opponent this year.
No team in U.S. Fed Cup history had ever come back from a 0-2 deficit after the first day (and no teams have at all since 1995) but she told the U.S. team that there was a first time for every comeback and told Oudin and Vandeweghe to just go for it in their singles matches.
Both Oudin and Vandeweghe did just that and put everything they had into their matches, however, the first 0-2 comeback win was not in the cards for the U.S. in this tie. After Oudin kept the U.S. alive with a dominating 6-3, 6-1 upset over world No. 7 Francesca Schiavone in the opening match, Flavia Pennetta defeated Vandeweghe 6-1, 6-2 to give Italy a 3-1 victory and its second straight Fed Cup title in San Diego, Calif.
It was the second year in a row that Pennetta, the world No. 23, won the clinching match for Italy, as she defeated Oudin in the third singles match of the 2009 final in Reggio Calabria, Italy to give the Italian team the crown, which it won 4-0.
With the Italian team already clinching the tie, the final doubles rubber was not played.
"I really enjoy to play for my country. I really enjoy to play for this team," Pennetta said of the reasons her Fed Cup success, which includes eight straight wins. "We are really friends with each other. We spend so much time together. It's nice to be here after five years together again in the final."
Italy had the 2-0 lead entering Sunday behind singles victories from Pennetta over Mattek-Sands and Schiavone over Vandeweghe. Mattek-Sands was originally scheduled to play Schiavone in the opening match Sunday but Fernandez decided in the morning to substitute Oudin as Mattek-Sands has been suffering from a sinus infection and a sore throat this week, and also suffered leg cramps in her loss to Pennetta.
"I’m a big believer everything happens for a reason. I wasn’t planning on playing Melanie first up today. I was hoping that Bethanie was going to be the one to start, then Melanie would have played Pennetta," Fernandez said. "But things happen. I didn’t want to take the risk of (Bethanie) not being 100 percent. She felt better today. She felt like she could go out there. Again, my gut told me I got someone who has fresh legs, someone who competes well, loves the pressure, let’s go with that. We had to change it up. We got ourselves back in there."
With the tie on the line, Oudin played arguably the best tennis she has played in all of 2010 to keep the U.S. alive. She served and returned well, used her speed to play great defense and made Schiavone, the 2010 French Open champion, play a lot of balls.
Schiavone was a completely different player from her dominating win over Vandeweghe Saturday when she was in full control of her service games and was precise with her shots. Sunday it was Oudin in control for most of the match, as Schiavone committed 34 unforced errors to just eight winners and held serve just once in each set.
"Today I definitely think this is the best I’ve played in a long time," Oudin, ranked No. 67, said. "I felt confident out there. I really played with no fear. I had a good game plan going in. I kept it going from start to finish and didn’t let her get back in the match.
"I was really playing for myself, my team and the whole U.S.," she added. "So I think sometimes that Fed Cup can bring out the best in people, especially when you’re playing for your country. I think that’s what really happened for me today."
Next up for the U.S. was Vandeweghe, who was playing in her first-ever Fed Cup tie after a breakthrough summer and fall on the WTA Tour to pull her ranking up to No. 114.
Vandeweghe, the hometown favorite from nearby Rancho Santa Fe, was up a break in the first game of the match but after losing a marathon second game, the older and more experienced player took control. Pennetta played steady and won the big points when she needed to, hitting 17 winners to 19 unforced errors to 14 winners and 46 unforced errors for Vandeweghe.
"It's not easy for her of course to go in the court 2-1 down and have the chance to go into hole," Pennetta said of Vandeweghe. "But she play good tennis. I think she was just too nervous after like the second game, when I won the second game, 14 or 15 minutes, really long game. But since then I starting to play really aggressive, I was really consistent, I didn’t make a lot of mistake, I was moving her a lot. I just try to play my tennis."
Vandeweghe was upset to not have been able to win for her country, much the same feeling Oudin had in last year’s final.
"I'm very disappointed in myself and the way that it turned out. But I tried my best out there, fought as hard as I could," Vandeweghe said. "Sometimes you get emotional when you’re by yourself on the tour, when you lose a tough fought match. But, you know, it’s definitely emotional right now losing for my country and for my teammates, people that kind of counted on me to pull out a win."
Seeing that kind of emotion and heart from Vandeweghe, Oudin and all her players is something Fernandez appreciates, as it shows how much they care about the team. She was very proud of how the rookie Vandeweghe handled herself.
"I’m very proud of CoCo, number one. She competed so well both days. The most important thing for me is she did the right things," Fernandez said. "She was trying to focus on trying to make the best plays possible. She played a world class opponent that came up with good shots at the right time. It’s the next step of winning those big points, developing as a player. So for CoCo, as it is for everybody else, the greatest thing about our sport is we have tomorrow. It’s about getting better the next time."
And as Fernandez reflected on another year of Fed Cup and another overall successful season for her core group of players that is seemingly always the underdog – as well as up-and-comers – she sees only good things to continue to come for the team and her players.
"It was another fantastic week of Fed Cup for us. I think I learn more about each player every time. We become closer every time," Fernandez said. "Everybody on this team is a team player. They’re all out there to give it their all. It’s what Fed Cup is about. It’s so nice to be able to seems like it goes fast part of a long week, to be able to work on the tennis, work on philosophies, especially what the young generation needs to do to get to the next step. We’re seeing it. We’re seeing the future right now in CoCo, Melanie, Bethanie doing so well this last season."