By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
The U.S. came achingly close to reaching its first Fed Cup final since 2003 this year, falling in the semifinal round to Russia, 2-3, in the deciding doubles rubber.
It was a very strong American group, as the year started with a team of Grand Slam champions Venus and Serena Williams, Lisa Raymond and Vania King, headed up by team captain Zina Garrison. The Americans also were very fortunate to have home turf for both the opening round against Belgium in Delray Beach, Fla., and the semifinal against Russia in Stowe, Vt.
For the opening quarterfinal round against Belgium on an outdoor hard court in April, the U.S. could not have been more successful, winning in dominant fashion, 5-0. The
Belgian team reached the final in 2006 (losing to Italy) but this time was without stars Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.
Against Belgium, the Williams sisters cruised in their opening matches, with Venus defeating Kirsten Flipkens, 7-5, 6-2, and Serena defeating Caroline Maes, 6-1, 6-4, to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead after Day 1. On Day 2, King defeated Flipkens in three sets, Venus dominated Yanina Wickmayer, 6-1, 6-2, and King and Raymond defeated Tamaryn Hendler and Maes, 6-1, 6-2, for the 5-0 sweep.
Russia also completed a 5-0 sweep, over Spain, in the quarterfinal round to set up a semifinal meeting against the U.S.
Just before the semifinal against Russia, the U.S. was dealt a big blow when it lost Serena Williams to a thumb injury, replacing her with Fed Cup newcomer Meilen Tu.
Against Russia -- and fresh off her win at Wimbledon for her sixth Grand Slam title -- Venus Williams showed her championship form in winning her opening match (again on outdoor hard courts) against Nadia Petrova in three sets, prevailing, 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-4, in a match that lasted nearly two hours. It was an incredibly important win for the U.S. because it put the countries in a 1-1 tie after Anna Chakvetadze defeated Vania King earlier on Day 1. For her career, Williams has a stellar Fed Cup singles record of 14-2.
Venus was in top form again on Day 2, winning in straight sets over Chakvetadze, but current world No. 14 Petrova was too much for Tu to handle, as the Russian won in just over an hour over the American making her Fed Cup debut as the competition stayed tied at 2-2.
The doubles competition proved to be the deciding rubber, and Garrison substituted Williams to play with Raymond, instead of King, against Petrova and Elena Vesnina. It was the first time since 1998 against Spain that the U.S. played a deciding fifth rubber.
Petrova and Vesnina went on to upset Williams and Raymond, 7-5, 7-6 (1), to earn a berth in the final against Italy.
The Russians then dominated Italy, 4-0, to reclaim the Fed Cup title in September, after winning in 2004 and 2005. The Russian team was especially strong for the final with three players ranked in the world's top 15 on its roster– Petrova, Chakvetadze and current world No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The U.S. has won more Fed Cup titles than any other nation – 17 – and won its last title in 2000. It is something the Americans will look to change in 2008.