By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
The U.S. Fed Cup Team is accustomed to being the underdog and to playing away from home in the past two years under Captain Mary Joe Fernandez.
But the situation they face April 16-17 against Germany is unlike anything these players have faced before, as the U.S. travels to Stuttgart, Germany, to fight to keep its spot in the World Group for 2012 in the Fed Cup Playoffs in what figures to be a tight match-up in a battle for Fed Cup’s top flight.
The core American group of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Melanie Oudin and Liezel Huber will be joined by Christina McHale, Fernandez announced via conference call Tuesday. They will face a German team of Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges, Sabine Lisicki and Anna-Lena Groenefeld indoors on red clay at the Porsche Arena.
Since Fed Cup adopted the home-away format in 1995, the U.S. has never been out of the World Group and has played in the Fed Cup Final the past two years, falling to Italy both times.
The U.S. was forced into its first Playoff since 2002 this year (and third overall), when it lost to a Kim Clijsters-led Belgian team 4-1 in the quarterfinals in February in Antwerp with Mattek-Sands, Oudin and Huber on the squad.
Seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams is also traveling with the team to Stuttgart and will practice with the team but is not expected to be able to play in the tie. She has not competed on the WTA Tour since retiring with a hip injury during her third-round match at the Australian Open against Petkovic.
"I have had all of them on my team the last couple years, and I am looking forward to having them again," Fernandez said of her four players. "It is going to be a tough match away on the red clay and a tough challenge. The Germans have a very strong team, but we look forward to challenges."
The German team is looking to regain its spot in the World Group for 2012 after winning its World Group II first-round tie over Slovenia. The Germans were relegated to World Group II for 2011 after losing their 2010 World Group quarterfinal tie to the Czech Republic and then a playoff to France.
They will not be easy opponents for the Americans, especially on the slow clay. Petkovic, Germany’s No. 1 player, is playing the best tennis of her career, as she moved to a career-high of No. 19 in the world this week after reaching the semifinals of the Sony Ericsson Open, losing to Maria Sharapova in three sets, and reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January.
"Playing on red clay has a different dimension to it," Fernandez said of the surface. "All of the players are playing this week in Charleston, so they are getting used to the clay-court surface. It is a different mentality. You have to be prepared to play out there all day and play high-percentage tennis."
Mattek-Sands is the highest-ranked American on the squad at No. 43 and has faced Petkovic twice in the last seven months, with the pair splitting their two meetings. They met in the second round of the US Open, a match in which Mattek-Sands held multiple match points in the third set but was unable to close it out as Petkovic advanced. The American got some revenge in Paris in February, this time emerging the winner in three sets. It could be another long three-setter when they meet again in the No. 1 vs. No. 1 singles match first on the second day.
In her Fed Cup career, Petkovic has won all four of her singles matches on clay, including winning both her singles matches in Germany’s 4-1 win over Slovenia on clay.
Oudin, at No. 75 in the world, will likely be the U.S.’s No. 2 singles player, and McHale, at a career-high No. 97, joins the team for the first time since its 2010 quarterfinal win over France, which was also indoors on clay.
Oudin has been on every one of Fernandez’s Fed Cup rosters since she took over as captain in 2009 and knows the pressures and situations of Fed Cup very well. A late insert into the lineup in the 2010 Fed Cup Final against Italy, Oudin defeated reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone to keep the U.S.’s hopes alive in the third singles match. Against Belgium in February, she was 0-2 against Clijsters and Yanina Wickmayer. She has faced Petkovic just once – a victory – but that was back in 2007 in an ITF Circuit event.
McHale, 18, turned professional in the second half of the 2010 season and has had some of the best results of her career so far in 2011, including reaching the third round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, where she defeated two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. With her outstanding play lately and growing confidence, Fernandez could insert her into the No. 2 singles position either Saturday or Sunday.
Goerges is Germany’s second-highest ranked singles player at No. 35 but has played just four career Fed Cup matches, including going 1-1 in singles against Slovenia. However, German Captain Barbara Rittner has options, with both Lisicki and Groenefeld having been ranked inside the top 25 in their careers before battling injuries that caused them to slip in the rankings and play at less than their top forms.
Oudin defeated Goerges in straight sets recently in their opening match at the Sony Ericsson Open. Mattek-Sands and Goerges met twice last year, with the American winning both times, including once on clay.
Lisicki, known for her powerful serve, was ranked as high as No. 22 in 2009 and is still just 21. She is now ranked No. 182 after missing most of 2010 with an ankle injury. Groenefeld, once ranked No. 14 in the world in 2006, battled a foot injury in 2010 and has dropped outside the top 200 after climbing back up the rankings to end 2009 at No. 67. She is also an accomplished doubles player and is currently No. 51 in the world. She is a seasoned Fed Cup veteran, as well, and has a 17-10 overall career record, with 12 wins coming on clay.
Fernandez knows the Germans have options in mixing up their lineup and will see how the week in practice goes leading up to the tie in determining which of her own players are best for No. 1 and 2 singles.
"Petkovic will probably be confident after beating (Caroline) Wozniacki and (Jelena) Jankovic in Miami," she said. "Goerges is dangerous. She has a big forehand and a pretty big serve but can also make mistakes. We will have to be solid, mix it up and see what the matchups are. Lisicki could also play (singles). She is another dangerous opponent with a big serve and powerful groundstrokes.
"I have to take into consideration that Melanie just beat Goerges (in Miami), if that is who they decide to play," she added of her potential lineup. "It is good to have the options. I will definitely look at who is more confident at the time. Melanie, she finds a way to rise to the occasion when she is playing for her country and teammates. I will take that into consideration."
With a dynamic doubles duo of Huber, the world No. 3, and Mattek-Sands, the world No. 11, the U.S. would have the distinct advantage should the tie come down to being decided in the final doubles rubber. The two are great under pressure, having clinched the World Group semifinals for the U.S. in both 2009 and 2010 to send the team to the Fed Cup Finals. Against Belgium, Huber teamed with Vania King to give the U.S. its only point of the tie.
Fernandez herself competed in a World Group Playoff as a player and knows the pressure of playing Fed Cup and representing the U.S. that her own team feels now, as it hopes to keep its spot in the top flight and compete for the 2012 Fed Cup crown.
"There is always pressure when you are playing for your country," she said. "We have had a really good run. We played Belgium in the first round, and it was tough to go up against Clijsters and (Yanina) Wickmayer away. It is a tough assignment, but we look forward to the challenge. We're going to do our all and give our best as usual to get through and to win and to stay in the World Group. That's the goal. We want to fight for the World Group trophy next year."