Italy’s Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta will have to wait until Friday’s draw to find out which U.S. challenge they will need to overcome in Saturday’s singles matches, while U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez has the difficult task of deciding which two of her young guns to put in the front line.
“I usually leave everything to the last minute,” said the 38-year-old former player at Thursday’s pre-draw press conference.
And wisely so. Without the Williams sisters at her disposal at this Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Final in Reggio Calabria, Fernandez will be anything but hasty in choosing who out of singles players Melanie Oudin, Alexa Glatch and Vania King will present the biggest problem for the Italian top two, and keep USA in with a chance to win an 18th Fed Cup title. But Fernandez remains confident in her young team, which has fought through two very difficult ties this year against Argentina and Czech Republic to hand USA its first Fed Cup final since 2003.
“We’ve had a really exciting year and it’s been a challenge each and every time,” she told the press. “Yes, the match-ups are in the Italians’ favour but as you’ve seen during the year, our team is very hungry and very feisty. They fight hard.”
What the Americans might lack in ranking points, they certainly make up for in spirit. Fresh from becoming the first player to receive the inaugural Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Heart Award, a recognition of commitment and courage in the competition, 18-year-old Melanie Oudin expressed her excitement ahead of the weekend while the No. 1 doubles player in the world, Liezel Huber, clearly articulated just how much being in Italy means to her.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. This team has my commitment. Every player here, my captain, and my country have my commitment,” said the South-African born Huber. “I chose to play for the U.S. so anything and everything I do this week, I shine through my country and my team.”
Fernandez spoke of her “tough week” when she received two separate calls from world No. 1 Serena and No. 6 Venus Williams informing her of their decision not to travel to Italy and responded to questions about the impact of their absence on the result this weekend.
“It would have been a big bonus having them here. But having said that, this is the team I know the best and the team that got us here. You want your players to have the same amount of pride as everyone else but you can’t force it on anyone.”
Ahead of Friday’s draw, it would seem logical for Fernandez to select world No. 49 Oudin and No. 132 Glatch as her No. 1 and No. 2 singles players, given their contribution to the two ties this year, and saving Roland Garros mixed doubles finalist King for Sunday’s potential deciding doubles rubber.
Glatch upset two Top 50 players Iveta Benesova and Petra Kvitova in USA’s semifinal against Czech Republic, while Oudin has also experienced the high pressure this year when she came from a set down in the first round to defeat Argentina’s Betina Jozami in the fourth rubber and keep USA alive in the tie. Glatch is also the only one of the four Americans to defeat one of the Italians this year, when she upset Flavia Pennetta 61 61 in the first round of Roland Garros. Pennetta was unwell but the win could still reduce the scare factor for the 20-year-old Californian should they meet this weekend.
Oudin, who created a hype when she defeated four big name Russians to reach her first ever Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open, has since 'underperformed', failing to qualify for the Tokyo and Beijing tournaments. But she assured everyone she can be relied upon this weekend.
“Everyone expects me to win everything now after I did good in one tournament. Everyone has ups and downs and I happened to be up at the US Open,” said the smiling Oudin. “I’m playing well again and I’m ready for the psych-up this weekend. We’ve gone through so much and we’ve fought so hard together as a team, so winning this final would mean a lot to me.”
The Americans, not so much synonymous with clay, have been enjoying the slow pace of the court this week and are feeling confident on the surface - a nice feeling to have considering Italy has won its last six ties on the surface.
This is the 10th final between Italy and USA and the U.S. has never lost to the Europeans, but history plays practically no part in this final. Fernandez sees this weekend as a new chapter in American Fed Cup history and a chance to develop a new generation of Fed Cup players that, while they may not reach the upper echelons on the ranking league tables, will, as a unit, become an exemplary force in the history of U.S. team tennis.