The U.S. will travel to Rimini, Italy, to take on the three-time Fed Cup champions in a first-round tie this upcoming weekend with a team that blends youth and experience. Melanie Oudin stepped in as a late replacement for Sloane Stephens, and will be joined by fellow Fed Cup veteran Liezel Huber and newcomers Varvara Lepchenko and Jamie Hampton.
"Melanie is such a team player to answer the call at the 11th hour," said Mary Joe Fernandez, who is in her fifth year as U.S. Fed Cup captain. "She has played some of her best tennis in Fed Cup. We were excited for Sloane to make her Fed Cup singles debut, but that will have to wait for another day."
Oudin, 21, was scheduled to play in the $100,000 Dow Corning Classic, a USTA Pro Circuit event in Midland, Mich., this week. She led the U.S. to the Fed Cup Final in 2009 and 2010, both of which ended in runner-up finishes to Italy.
Overall, Oudin has played in seven Fed Cup ties and has a 5-8 singles record in the competition. She is currently ranked No. 85 in the world and won her first career WTA tour singles title last year in Birmingham, Great Britain, defeating former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in the final.
Stephens, currently ranked No. 17 in the world, suffered an abdominal strain during her run to the Australian Open semifinals last month, which included a victory over Serena Williams.
"I’m terribly disappointed that I won’t be able to play for my country in Italy," said Stephens. "I played a lot more matches than I expected in four straight weeks in Australia and need to be careful not to let this injury sideline me for a long time."
The Americans will face an Italian team of world No. 7 Sara Errani, 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.
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. in 2009 and 2010. The U.S., however, holds a 9-2 head-to-head edge over Italy in Fed Cup play.
"We're very happy that we got back in the World Group this season," Fernandez said. "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."
For singles, Fernandez will counter with some variety of Oudin, Hampton and Lepchenko. While Oudin is the most experienced, Hampton and Lepchenko both enter the tie with momentum.
Hampton boasts a career-high ranking of No. 62 after a great run at the 2013 Australian Open, where she advanced to the third round and, despite a nagging back injury, pushed eventual champion Victoria Azarenka to three sets. And Lepchenko, who became a U.S. citizen in September 2011, had a breakout year in 2012, 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.