By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
The core group of the U.S. Fed Cup team is back.
U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez officially announced her team for the 2010 Fed Cup final next week against Italy, with Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Liezel Huber representing the U.S. together for the third consecutive tie. Joining the U.S. team for the first time is teenager Coco Vandeweghe.
It was Vandeweghe’s outstanding play on the WTA Tour this summer that earned her a spot on her first Fed Cup team. Vandeweghe has traveled with the team to multiple ties as a practice partner, most recently during the 2009 quarterfinals against Argentina, but this will be her first time as a full team member.
The 2010 Fed Cup final between the U.S. and Italy will be played on an indoor hardcourt at the San Diego Sports Arena in San Diego, Nov. 6-7.
The two teams are facing each other in the Fed Cup final for the second consecutive year. Italy defeated the U.S. 4-0 last year on a slow, outdoor clay court in Reggio Calabria, Italy. The Italians are expected to field the same team as last year in 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.
This year, the U.S. team is hoping the home-court advantage helps turn the tide in its favor, as it tries to bring home the Fed Cup title for the first time since 2000. This is the first time the U.S. has reached the final in back-to-back years since its consecutive title-winning years of 1999 and 2000. This is also the first time the U.S. has hosted the final since 2000.
"I am very excited to be in the final once again and to be at home – that is huge," Fernandez said on a conference call. "We have played a lot of our ties away, and to be able to host the final for the first time in 10 years and trying to win the Fed Cup for the first time in 10 years is quite a thrill.
"I am very excited that the team is ready and motivated to try and win the Fed Cup back. We are going to have the same core players that have been playing the whole season, with Bethanie, Melanie, Liezel and up-and-comer CoCo Vandeweghe, who is actually from the (San Diego) area. I am really looking forward to it, the players are excited, and it is going to be great to be at home."
Venus and Serena Williams originally committed to playing against Italy, but both were forced to withdraw from competition for the rest of 2010, including the Fed Cup final, with lingering injuries.
Serena has not played a WTA Tour match since winning her 13th Grand Slam tournament title in Wimbledon in July after she cut her foot on glass at a restaurant, which required surgery. She had hoped to return to competition this fall, including the Fed Cup final, but she recently re-tore the tendon she originally injured.
Venus has been sidelined with a knee injury, and the US Open is the only tournament she has played since Wimbledon. She announced in early October she would be unable to compete again this year.
Fernandez had announced that Serena, Venus, Oudin, Mattek-Sands and Huber would all be part of the Fed Cup final team back in August. So with or without the Williams sisters, the core group would be back.
Even playing at home, Fernandez knows her team is still an underdog against the Italians, with Schiavone, ranked No. 6 in the world, and Pennetta, ranked No. 23, as well as the experience they bring.
"Definitely (the U.S. is an underdog). I think it helps to be at home and playing on a surface the team prefers," Fernandez said. "Last year, being away in Italy, the slow red clay, it was more of a challenge. The whole team has a ton of experience. Schiavone is playing the best tennis of her career. They have great chemistry. They have been together as a team for a long time, and it is a big challenge, but we are looking forward to it and hoping we can turn things around this time."
Oudin and Huber were both part of the 2009 Fed Cup final team, but this will be the first final for Mattek-Sands, the team’s highest-ranked player at No. 60, who is a big reason why the U.S. is playing in its second straight Fed Cup Final.
In the semifinals against Russia, Mattek-Sands became the first player in U.S. Fed Cup team history to win consecutive live matches to clinch a tie victory, when she defeated Ekaterina Makarova in three sets in the fourth singles rubber to keep the U.S. alive and then teamed with Huber to clinch the tie with a win in the doubles rubber over Elena Dementieva and Alla Kudryavtseva.
She last played in Quebec City in September just after the US Open, where she played a fantastic tournament, losing in the final in three sets to Tamira Paszek. She also had a solid US Open, where she lost to Andrea Petkovic in three close sets in the second round. As a whole, Mattek-Sands has been fully healthy this year for the first time in her career and played more matches in 2010 than ever before in her professional career – and the results have shown.
Oudin, the 2009 US Open quarterfinalist, went 2-0 in the U.S.’s Fed Cup quarterfinal victory over France as the team’s No. 1 singles player and 1-1 against Russia, where she lost a three-set match to Dementieva. She was also a member of the U.S. team for each of its ties in 2009 and was the inaugural winner of the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Heart Award in 2009 for her outstanding play and commitment to the team.
Vandeweghe, who is now ranked No. 115, comes into the Fed Cup final playing the best tennis of her career. She spent much of the first half of this year competing on the USTA Pro Circuit but shot up the rankings and showed she belonged on the WTA Tour this summer when she qualified for the Mercury Insurance Open in San Diego – part of the Olympus US Open Series – and advanced all the way to the quarterfinals. On the way, she defeated current world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva. Also a few weeks ago, she reached the quarterfinals in Tokyo before falling to Victoria Azarenka.
"I watched Coco in San Diego when she beat Zvonareva," Fernandez said. "Her game has come a long way. I had her on my first team (against Argentina) as one of the two young ones so that was almost two years ago, and she has developed really well. She has a big game. After the US Open, she went to Asia for three weeks, had a lot of wins, and I feel she has a great style for the game."
Oudin and Mattek-Sands are likely to be the team’s singles players, and for the doubles rubber, it is likely Huber and Mattek-Sands will once again team up. Huber, the world No. 1 in doubles, and Mattek-Sands, ranked No. 17, also put the U.S. into the Fed Cup final in 2009, when they won the deciding doubles rubber against the Czech Republic in the semifinals. The two also played together on the WTA Tour this year, including reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, as their different styles of play and camaraderie have made them a formidable team.
However, Fernandez always makes her lineup decisions after watching all the players practice during the week leading up to the tie. The official team lineup for the tie will be announced at the official draw ceremony on Friday, Nov. 5. But whoever does or does not play, Fernandez is just thrilled to be able to have her core group healthy and available, as well as Vandeweghe.
"I am so happy (to have the core group)," she said. "You never know, the end of the year is always tough, bodies get banged up. It is not an easy time for anyone. I am very fortunate they are able to come back."