American captain Mary Joe Fernandez has named her team that will travel to Kharkiv next week to face Ukraine in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-offs (21-22 April).
“My team will consist of Serena Williams, Christina McHale, Liezel Huber, Sloane Stephens, and Jamie Hampton will also be coming along,” said Fernandez, who is taking charge of her 10th tie.
“I’ve had all these players on my teams in the past, we’ve had good chemistry. Everybody is very determined and eager to get back into the World Group. This is a great opportunity for us. We're looking forward to it.”
USA were relegated from the World Group last year for the first time in their history, but after a 5-0 home win over Belarus in February the Americans are now in a position to gain promotion back to Fed Cup’s top division.
“This is my fourth year as captain. Every tie we go to, there's a lot of pride on the line. We were so disappointed last year not to be able to stay in the World Group,” added Fernandez.
“Having said that, we approach each tie like we're in the World Group. You just want to win the tie that you have. Everybody knows the importance of it. It's the first time ever we've dropped out this year and we want to get back, we want to contend for the Fed Cup title.
“That's a big goal of the team, particularly this new generation of players. They're making big strides. They work well together. I love the fact they have passion for it. Hopefully we will be given that opportunity, but obviously this is a big step in getting back to winning a Fed Cup title.”
USA’s opposition in Kharkiv – Ukraine – are without their most experienced duo, sisters Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko, so Lesia Tsurenko takes on the mantle of being the team’s No. 1 player for the weekend.
Despite being just outside the Top 100, Tsurenko defied her lowly ranking during Ukraine’s clash with Italy earlier in the year, when she won both her singles rubbers against Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani, although the latter was after a retirement in the second set.
Tsurenko lines up alongside debutante Elina Svitolina and twin sisters Lyudmyla and Nadiya Kichenok. There is no doubt that the hosts are big underdogs, but Fernandez isn’t taking anything for granted.
“On paper obviously we go in as the heavy favourites. I was expecting at least one of the Bondarenkos to play, but they're not. I know their No. 1, who I believe won both her matches early in February against Italy, she's quite solid and competes very well, Lesia Tsurenko. We'll have our work cut out for us with that match-up.
“The other ones, to be honest, I don't know a lot about them. We'll have to see what we come up with. We're playing on red clay, outside. It's going to be very cold, most likely. So there will be challenges. At the same time we go into it with a lot of belief. We're there to be the ones in charge.”
USA’s obvious singles line-up on day one would be Williams and McHale, with Huber coming in for Sunday’s doubles rubber, although Fernandez insists that she hasn’t made any final decisions yet.
“I don't really decide till the last minute. Obviously, Serena, if healthy, will play for sure. Right now my No. 2 is Christina McHale, but Sloane and Jamie are all possibilities.
“We just wait to see how everybody is feeling, what the match-ups are. Once I know a little bit more about the other team, we'll go from there. Liezel Huber is coming for doubles. She can play with Serena or she could play with somebody else.”
Huber has established herself as a key member of the American team since Fernandez has been at the helm, and the American captain is hopeful that the 35-year-old doubles specialist won’t hang up her rackets any time soon.
“Liezel, I have to say, is such a great team player. She's really almost like the mom on the team. She worries about everybody, makes sure everybody is where they need to be. She's a big asset to my teams. I think I have had her every single tie [when Fernandez has been captain].
“I know her well now. She knows me. We know how we operate. She is a crunch-time player. I mean, when it comes time, if it's a deciding match, a big point, there's no one better in that position. She wants the ball. I think that's great for Fed Cup and for what I'm doing. I've thoroughly enjoyed having her and I hope she plays for a little bit longer.”