In a repeat of last year’s Final, USA and Italy will once again commence battle to decide which nation is crowned Fed Cup by BNP Paribas champion.
Italy had the upper hand in 2009, sweeping the Americans aside 4-0 on clay in Reggio Calabria, but this year could be different. USA has home advantage and has elected to play the tie on an indoor hard court at the San Diego Sports Arena.
Similar to last year, both nations have experienced contrasting routes to the Final. USA has been forced to dig deep, while Italy has cruised through with the loss of just a single rubber.
Young Americans triumph
USA’s first round tie against France was actually a routine affair, as Melanie Oudin and Bethanie Mattek-Sands doubled up to give the away team an unassailable 3-0 lead in Lievin.
Mattek-Sands set the tone with her first Fed Cup singles victory in the opening rubber. The American triumphed 76(7) 75 over Alize Cornet, who was also searching for her inaugural win in the competition.
Cornet was unable to capitalise on the four set points she held in the first set and Mattek-Sands made her pay, snatching the tiebreak before going on to win in straight sets.
Oudin then put the Americans firmly in the driving seat, as she further enhanced her growing Fed Cup reputation by defeating Pauline Parmentier 64 64.
This was followed by a decisive 76(3) 64 victory over Julie Coin, who was brought into the reverse singles line-up for the unfavoured Cornet.
“In the beginning, I was a bit nervous and she was serving great, but as the match advanced I got more and more confident and I’m obviously thrilled that I was able to allow the US to go to the semis," said Oudin.
With the result settled, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez used the opportunity to hand a debut to Christina McHale, and the teenager made a promising start to her Fed Cup career, despite going down 64 64 against Parmentier.
Mattek-Sands and doubles specialist Liezel Huber successfully teamed up in the fifth rubber to leave the scoreline 4-1 in favour of the visitors.
The French team was a far cry from the one that lifted the trophy in 2003, but it was still a positive performance from an American side that possessed a healthy mix of youth and experience.
Mattek-Sands produces Sunday heroics
The reward for USA was a home tie in the semifinals against old foe Russia. The Russians had won the last three meetings between the two powerful Fed Cup nations, but revenge was around the corner for Fernandez’s team.
Such is the strength in depth at the disposal of Shamil Tarpischev, Russia’s captain, he consistently has the luxury of naming his team from a pool of over a dozen Top 100 players.
On this occasion, he selected Elena Dementieva, Ekaterina Makarova and Alla Kudryavtseva to make the trip to Birmingham, Alabama.
Once again playing as the team's No. 1 player in the absence of the Williams sisters, Oudin got the home side off to the perfect start, winning 63 63 against Kudryavtseva.
Dementieva quickly hit back. The two-time Grand Slam champion, who also won the singles gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, defeated Mattek-Sands 64 63 to leave the tie all-square over night.
Dementieva continued where she left off in the first of Sunday’s singles rubbers, overcoming a second set scare to see off the challenge of Oudin 76(4) 06 63. It left the visitors needing just one more point for a place in the Final.
Makarova was tasked with securing the vital point although she came up against a determined Mattek-Sands, who held her nerve to triumph 64 26 63.
The American then partnered Huber to clinch a 63 61 win over Dementieva and Kudryavtseva, and with it a famous 3-2 victory for the home team.
“You know what, it was a big adrenaline rush,” said Mattek-Sands, who became only the third American player ever to win successive live matches to seal victory on the final day.
“I'm normally not really emotional on the court, but just playing in Fed Cup, different pressures. I was really pumped, though. I always want to win whether I'm playing singles, doubles, charades, whatever. I think we're all pretty competitive. So I was ready to go.”
Next up for USA is the visit of Italy, the defending champions.