Serena Williams will be the favorite in both her singles matches against Ukraine.
© Jared Gruenwald
Christina McHale won her first career Fed Cup matches against Belarus.
© Jared Gruenwald
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Over the past three years, the U.S. Fed Cup Team and Captain Mary Joe Fernandez have become used to playing the role of underdog.
Since Fernandez took over the helm of the team in 2009, the U.S. has taken its underdog role in stride for most of its ties and produced some thrilling upset victories, including a 3-2 win away against the Czech Republic in the 2009 semifinals and a 3-2 victory over Elena Dementieva and a strong Russian team at home in the 2010 semifinals.
But with a chance to return to the World Group for 2013 on the line, the U.S. team, led by 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, now finds itself as the heavy favorite against a young, inexperienced team from Ukraine in the World Group Playoffs in Kharkiv, Ukraine, April 21-22.
The tie will take place on an outdoor red-clay court, but on paper, the U.S. team of Williams, world No. 35 Christina McHale, world No. 1 doubles player Liezel Huber and world No. 77 Sloane Stephens appear to have a hefty advantage in both talent and experience. Rising star Jamie Hampton will also travel with the team.
Lesia Tsurenko, ranked No. 110 in the world, is the top-ranked singles player for Ukraine. She won both her singles matches, including a victory over Francesca Schiavone, in Ukraine’s World Group quarterfinal loss to Italy in February, which forced the team into the Playoff.
Elina Svitolina, 17, is the world No. 178 and will be making her Fed Cup debut, and 19-year-old twins Lyudmyla Kichenok and Nadiya Kichenok have each competed in just one Fed Cup tie, with Lyudmyla ranked No. 365 and Nadiya at No. 475.
Neither Williams nor McHale, the likely No. 1 and No. 2 singles players for the U.S., have ever faced Tsurenko or Svitolina in competition.
The U.S. Fed Cup Team was relegated to World Group II in 2012 for the first time in its history after losing in the quarterfinals to Belgium in 2011 and then in a World Group Playoff to Germany last year, both away ties. Behind two singles wins from Williams and McHale, the U.S. advanced to the playoff this year with a 5-0 win over Belarus in the World Group II First Round in February.
For this tie, Fernandez said she was surprised to see Ukraine’s highest-ranked singles player, No. 61 Kateryna Bondarenko, out of the lineup, which her team does not know much about. Ukraine’s Alona Bondarenko, the former world No. 19, has not played on the WTA Tour this season and missed most of last season due to injury.
"On paper, obviously, we go in as the heavy favorites. I was expecting at least one of the Bondarenkos to play, but they're not. I know their No. 1, whom I believe won both her matches early in February against Italy, is quite solid and competes very well," Fernandez said. "We'll have our work cut out for us with that matchup. The other ones, to be honest, I don't know a lot about them, so there will be challenges. At the same time, we go into it with a lot of belief. We're there to be the ones in charge."
Each player on the U.S. team is coming into the tie playing her best tennis. Williams is Williams, despite working her way back this year from various injuries and illness that kept her out for most of 2011. She is still the most dominant player in women’s tennis when healthy and is coming off a tremendous run in Charleston last week, when she won her 40th career title.
She is also undefeated in her Fed Cup career with a 9-0 record and will be the heavy favorite in both her singles matches in Kharkiv.
It is a huge asset for Fernandez to have players like Serena and Venus Williams around the younger players, not just for the wins they can bring on court but for the influence they can have with their focus and preparation. The two were on the Fed Cup team together against Belarus for the first time in Fernandez’s tenure as captain, and it was the first time ever for Serena.
Venus is not on the team for this tie as she continues her recovery from the fatigue-causing Sjogren’s Syndrome, having just played Miami and Charleston, as she slowly makes her return to the WTA Tour and decides how much she can play.
"They bring so much, not only with their tennis, but their accomplishments, being role models for everybody else," Fernandez said of Venus and Serena. "It's that aura that they bring that makes a huge impact to the younger generation. It's just something you can't put a price on because it just motivates, inspires anyone to be around that kind of excellence.
"I have to say I wasn't sure what to expect in Worcester," she added of having Serena and Venus for the first time together. "I was very happy and pleased with the chemistry and how much Venus and Serena interacted and helped the rest of the team."
McHale, 19, has surged up the rankings to a career-high No. 32 a few weeks ago behind consistently solid results, including a fourth-round appearance at Indian Wells. She also brought her top-level tennis to Worcester, Mass., in February to secure her first career Fed Cup wins against Belarus, losing just five games in two matches and leaving with lots of confidence.
If need be, Fernandez could also turn to two rising stars in Stephens and Hampton. Stephens, who says she enjoys playing on clay, reached her career-high ranking of No. 75 in early April. Hampton reached her career-best rank of No. 85 in mid-March and advanced to the fourth round of Indian Wells, where she pushed current world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska to three sets before having to retire from the match.
Huber has been the rock on the team since 2008 with a 7-2 doubles record and a 3-0 record in live rubbers for the U.S. For the doubles match against Ukraine, it would seem likely she would pair with Williams should the tie be on the line, but if one side has clinched, she could easily play with Stephens or Hampton.
"Christina has had some good wins. Sloane is starting to put it all together, maximize her speed and agility. Jamie is a great athlete and has some big weapons in her game, so we've seen her do well," Fernandez said of her young players’ success heading into the tie. "It's great to see them develop, to improve, the hard work you see them put in practice, for it to translate into their matches on a weekly basis now. They're maturing, they're growing up. Now they're gaining experience. It's wonderful."
Fernandez also knows this is a great opportunity for the U.S. to reclaim its spot in the World Group for 2013, the 50th anniversary year of Fed Cup competition, and as the most successful nation with 17 titles, with the U.S. last taking home the crown in 2000. Fernandez and the U.S. want to compete for the title again next year, and they are just three wins away from the opportunity.
"We were so disappointed last year not to be able to stay in the World Group," she said. "Having said that, we approach each tie like we're in the World Group. Everybody knows the importance of it. It's the first time ever we've dropped out this year, and we want to get back. We want to contend for the Fed Cup title. That's a big goal of the team, particularly this new generation of players. Hopefully we will be given that opportunity. But obviously this is a big step in getting back to winning a Fed Cup title."