Sloane Stephens and Liezel Huber in action in the World Group Play-offs in 2012 vs. Ukraine.
© Ron Angle
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Fresh off her first career Grand Slam semifinal appearance at the Australian Open, Sloane Stephens will add another first to her growing list of tennis accolades next week, when she will be the No .1 singles player for the U.S. Fed Cup team in its 2013 first-round tie against Italy.
Stephens, ranked a career-high No. 17 after her run in Melbourne, will join world No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko and world No. 62 Jamie Hampton, both of whom will be making their Fed Cup debuts, as well as five-time Grand Slam doubles champion Liezel Huber on Captain Mary Joe Fernandez’s squad. The tie will be held in Rimini, Italy, Feb. 9-10, and will be played indoors on red clay.
The Americans will face an Italian team of world No. 7 Sara Errani, world No. 16 Roberta Vinci, Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett. Errani and Vinci are also the world No. 1 doubles team and the 2012 US Open and 2013 Australian Open doubles champions.
The two countries are familiar foes, having met in the Fed Cup final in 2009 and 2010, with Italy winning the title both years, although those teams were led by Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. The U.S. won the first nine meetings against Italy in Fed Cup play.
In the 50th anniversary of Fed Cup competition this year, the U.S. is making its return to the World Group. The U.S. competed in World Group II in 2012 and regained its spot in the top group for 2013 with a 5-0 win in the World Group Play-offs over Ukraine last April. The U.S. is the most successful nation in Fed Cup history, having won the title 17 times. Italy has won three titles, adding a championship in 2006 to its two victories over the U.S.
"We're very happy that we got back in the World Group this season," Fernandez said during a conference call in December. "Errani is more of a counter-puncher, but she can create. She's looking to hit her forehand with heavy spin. She's very quick. She plays clay-court tennis but can translate it onto a hard court. Vinci is very different from Errani. She likes to come in, has a great and beautiful one-handed backhand that she slices, can chip and charge, and I think has the best volleys in the women's game.
"The good thing from my perspective is that they're players that don't blow you off the court," Fernandez added. "You can really play against them and you're going to have time. But I guess the downside is how tough they are mentally. It will be challenging. Doubles-wise, I think they they've proven how tough they are. So there's a lot of depth. It's going to be interesting and we're going to give it our best."
This will be Stephens’ Fed Cup singles debut; she made her competitive debut last year in doubles with Huber in the U.S. team’s win over Ukraine and was a member of the team for the U.S.’s 2010 semifinal tie against Russia.
Stephens upset 15-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams on her way to the Australian Open semifinals and made her Top 20 debut this week. She is 1-1 in her career against Errani, the 2012 French Open runner-up, having defeated her in three sets in Miami last year in their most recent meeting, and she has never faced Vinci.
For No. 2 singles, Fernandez has a choice of either Hampton, who traveled with the team as a practice partner against Ukraine, and the rookie Lepchenko. Hampton boasts a career-high ranking after a great run at the 2013 Australian Open, where she advanced to the third round and despite a nagging back injury pushed world No. 1 and eventual champion Victoria Azarenka to three sets.
Lepchenko, who became a U.S. citizen in September 2011, has a breakout year in 2012 in singles, advancing to the round of 16 at Roland Garros and the third round of Wimbledon and the US Open. She ended the year ranked No. 21, after finishing 2011 ranked No. 110.
Fernandez has the team stalwart in Huber for doubles, who is 8-2 in her U.S. Fed Cup career, although one loss was to Errani and Vinci in the 2009 Fed Cup final, partnering with Vania King.
The official lineup for the tie will be announced at the official draw ceremony on Friday, Feb. 8, and in addition to No. 2 singles, Fernandez still has to decide who to pair with Huber in doubles. The captain said she likes her options.
"Sloane had a breakthrough season. We've seen her ability. She's getting mentally tougher, playing to her strengths much more," Fernandez said. "Lepchenko to me was such a surprise to see her get so much out of her game and how hard she works. I'm happy with Jamie’s progress. She's starting to figure out her strengths and play to them a lot better. We have a good group that can play on different surfaces and that are excited to play Fed Cup. Hopefully, we can get through Italy."