By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Melanie Oudin was the U.S. team's No. 1 singles player for the final against Italy.
© Ray Giubilo
Alexa Glatch won both of her singles matches against the Czech Republic.
© Ron Angle
Liezel Huber celebrates the come-from-behind doubles victory against the Czech Republic.
© Ron Angle
For Mary Joe Fernandez, it was a memorable first year as U.S. Fed Cup Captain, as her teams fought hard for come-from-behind wins in the first two ties, culminating in the U.S.’s first appearance in the Fed Cup Final since 2003.
Throughout the year, Fernandez led teams that were considered the slight underdogs at least, against Argentina in the quarterfinals, the Czech Republic in the semifinals and Italy in the final. The team reached the final without having a singles player ranked inside the top 30 the whole year, showing its determination, fight and heart in each round.
And although the U.S. fell in the final, 4-0, to Italy, there was plenty for Fernandez and her team members throughout the year of which to be proud.
“It was a fantastic first year for me and, I think, for everybody involved,” Fernandez said after the final. “The girls worked really hard, and I think they surprised themselves a little bit. They improved so much and grew a lot from this year’s experience.”
The year started in Surprise, Ariz., as a U.S. team of Jill Craybas, Fed Cup rookie Melanie Oudin, Liezel Huber and Julie Ditty took on Argentina, led by then-world No. 44 Gisela Dulko. With Dulko the highest -ranked singles player of the tie, she went in as the favorite in both of her singles matches against Craybas, the U.S.’s No. 1 player ranked No. 75, and Oudin, the No. 2 singles player, then ranked No. 151 and yet to become a household name.
After Day 1, the teams were tied 1-1, after Craybas defeated Betina Jozami and Dulko defeated Oudin. Dulko then defeated Craybas to open play on the second day, giving Argentina a 2-1 lead and just one match win from advancing.
Oudin took to the court next against Jozami, needing a win to keep the U.S. alive and send the tie to the deciding doubles rubber. And just like she would so many times throughout the year – especially at the US Open – Oudin displayed her fight, battling back after losing the first set to win in three.
Huber, the world No. 1 doubles player, then teamed with Ditty against Dulko and Jozami in the doubles rubber and sent the U.S. to the semifinals with a 6-2, 6-3 victory.
For Oudin, 18, the come-from-behind win was a great learning experience that carried through the rest of her fantastic year, as she reached the fourth round of Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of the US Open to skyrocket into the top 50 in the rankings.
“I think playing well against Jozami helped my confidence big time, and that pressure situation there helped me so much at Wimbledon, US Open,” Oudin said. “I was down match points in my first-round qualifying match at Wimbledon, and I was down a set like every match in New York. But being down did not really phase me at all. I was still playing and fighting hard.”
For the semifinals in April, Fernandez and the team traveled to Brno, Czech Republic, to take on the Czech team indoors on hardcourts as the slight underdog again. The Czech team did not have a singles player ranked outside the top 50, and the U.S. had just one player, Bethanie Mattek-Sands then at No. 39, ranked that high. Rounding out the U.S. squad for the tie were Huber and Oudin once again, who were joined by Fed Cup rookies Mattek-Sands and Alexa Glatch.
After watching the team practice in the week leading up to the tie, Fernandez selected Mattek-Sands as the team’s No. 1 singles player and Glatch, then ranked No. 114 in the world, as the No. 2 player against the lefty singles players of the Czech team.
Mattek-Sands opened play on Day 1 against Petra Kvitova, then ranked No. 48 in the world, and lost a hard-fought match, 6-3, 7-6 (2). The U.S. was facing a potentially daunting 0-2 hole if Glatch did not defeat Iveta Benesova, then the world No. 29, in the second match.
But as it turned out, there was no need to worry. Glatch, then 19, came out and dominated Benesova, making the rankings between the two players easily look reversed, as she won, 6-1, 6-2, to level the tie at 1-1.
“I tried to play pretty aggressive on the returns,” Glatch said of her match strategy. “I think a big key for me is to be aggressive and take my chances, and I think I did that pretty well. Especially on second serves, it is the time to be aggressive.”
On Day 2, Mattek-Sands again opened play for the U.S. but against Lucie Safarova, who was substituted for Benesova. Safarova won, 6-3, 6-1, to put the U.S. in the same position it was against Argentina – just one match away from elimination.
But just like against Argentina, a Fed Cup rookie stepped up for her team. This time it was Glatch for the second day in a row.
Glatch came out and put on a dominating display of tennis just like the day before, playing aggressively and with few mistakes to win, 6-2, 6-1, over Kvitova and send the tie to the deciding doubles rubber, easily making her the MVP of the tie.
And for the second tie in a row, Huber took to the court with a chance to clinch the tie for the U.S., this time with Mattek-Sands as her partner against Kveta Peschke and Benesova.
But unlike the tie against Argentina, things did not start going the Americans’ way. Peschke and Benesova won the first set and seemed in control and poised to take the second, up 5-2 at one point with a match point. But Huber and Mattek-Sands were not going down without a fight.
They held in that game, then broke and pushed the second set to 5-all. The second set moved to a tiebreak, where Huber and Mattek-Sands dominated, to push the match to the third set. And the Americans carried over their momentum from the end of the second set, feeling the tide turn in their favor in the third, to pull out the match, 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-1, and put the U.S. in its first final in six years.
“I really didn’t think we were going to pull it out. I was not trying to get down on myself or my partner or the people. I was angry. I was getting very sad. I cried on the court, which I havent done since I was 12,” Huber, the team leader, said. “It is very emotional for me to play for the U.S., and I wasn’t playing my best tennis; it was upsetting. But we fed off each other, and we felt it inside. Once we could put one point, one foot in front of the other, then before we knew, it was 5-all.”
“Alexa was the MVP,” Fernandez added of the tie. “She really brought her best game, and I think she has a very bright future. (And) I think we’re building a great Fed Cup team of the future, and it is great that we are winning while we are doing it. I have good feelings about the future of American tennis. We had a different team this week (than against Argentina), and it is everybody (from both ties) contributing. It is the whole year and the whole big picture.”
And indeed it was all the players throughout the whole year that helped propel the U.S. into the final in November, when the team traveled to Reggio Calabria, Italy, to face the favored Italian team outdoors on red clay.
The U.S. team originally consisted of Serena Williams, Huber, Oudin and Glatch, but Williams was forced to withdraw with exhaustion a few days before and was replaced with Vania King.
For the third time in three ties, the U.S. was the underdog, perhaps more so than in the previous ties against the Italian team of world No. 11 Flavia Pennetta, world No. 17 Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci.
Much had changed for the U.S. team since February, however, most notably the rise of Oudin. The 18-year-old went from No. 151 in the world to a household name following her great runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, where she upset Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova en route to the quarterfinals. Having been a rookie No. 2 player back in February, Oudin now was the third-highest ranked American woman in the world at No. 49 and the team’s No. 1 singles player.
As her No. 2, Fernandez again selected Glatch after her sensational performance in Brno. In doubles, Huber was scheduled to team with King. Prior to the start of the tie, Oudin was also announced as the recipient of the inaugural Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Heart Award for her commitment to her team, courage and distinguished representation of her country during the 2009 Fed Cup season.
In the opening match, Pennetta, Italy’s No. 1 player, defeated Glatch, 6-3, 6-1, playing some of her best tennis and giving the American few opportunities to get back into the match. Oudin took the court next against Schiavone and was up a break in the first set and leading 4-2 before rain forced a nearly two-hour delay in play.
Once the delay was over, Schiavone came out as a different player, having adjusted her strategy and being more aggressive, and brought the first set back on serve before winning in a tiebreak. And with the hometown crowd behind her, Schiavone took control of the second set to win the match, 7-6 (2), 6-2, and give Italy a commanding 2-0 lead after Day 1.
On Day 2, Oudin opened play against Pennetta. The two were neck-and-neck in the first set, playing solid tennis, and Oudin broke to even the first set at 5-all and keep herself in the set. However, Pennetta, who served extremely well throughoutt the match, broke right back and then held to take the opening set, 7-5. In the second set, Oudin closed to 4-2 at one point, but from there, Pennetta did not lose another game, closing out the second set, 6-2, and giving Italy the 2009 Fed Cup Title.
In an abbreviated doubles match, Errani and Vinci then defeated Huber and King, 4-6, 6-3, 11-9, to make the final score, 4-0, in Italy’s favor.
It hurt to come so far and work so hard and not come away with the title, but the U.S. team knew it had defied a lot of expectations throughout the year and accomplished a lot, advancing farther than any team in six years. And not bringing home the title just makes the team hungrier for the 2010 crown.
“We’ve had an amazing year in Fed Cup. Since 2003 the United States hasn’t been in the final,” Oudin said. “The final is a big deal, and we all worked really hard to get here. It’s definitely disappointing (to lose)… I think this was a great experience for me. I’m gonna look back on it. And someday, when I’m in the Fed Cup final again, hopefully I’ll be able to pull out the win.”
Fernandez was also presented with the 2009 Fed Cup Award of Excellence prior to the start of matches on the second day of the final and will look back with fond memories of her first year as captain, knowing there is a solid foundation for the U.S. team in 2010 and beyond after the success of so many young players in 2009.
“It’s been an amazing first year. I’ve said this before, but my best memories of playing have been when I was on a team. Fed Cup was definitely a big part of it,” Fernandez said. “To be able to come back in a different role is really just amazing for me. It’s an honor and a privilege. I’ve had a terrific team the whole year. The team that we (had in Italy) I’m so proud of, as well as the players that contributed and got us here: Jill Craybas, Julie Ditty, Bethanie Mattek-Sands. All of them really gave it their all.
“It’s such a different kind of pressure when you’re playing for a team and for your country. You feel a lot more expectation, a lot more weight on your shoulders,” she added. “I’m so impressed with how the young ones this year were able to cope with it. They’ve proven that they (can) play under these conditions and this amount of pressure. This was their first final, so I’m very proud of them. They played unbelievably hard, and they fought.”