Melanie Oudin looks ahead in Fed Cup; Williams sisters not needed
Lost in all the excitement of the Kings -- first taking a lead over and then being eliminated by Vancouver in the first round of the NHL playoffs -- of the angst over the Lakers losing two games to Oklahoma City in the NBA playoffs, of the Angels causing the Yankees to lose a series for the first time this season, it's possible you missed how the United States pulled out a 3-2 win over Russia in the Federations Cup semifinals last weekend in Birmingham, Ala.
The unlikely star was Bethanie Mattek-Sands, best known usually for wearing knee-high tube socks. She beat Russia's Ekaterina Makarova 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 Sunday after Melanie Oudin's three-set loss to sixth-ranked Elena Dementieva had given the Russians a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series.
Then, after a 30-minute rest, Mattek-Sands teamed with naturalized U.S. citizen Liezel Huber to clinch a spot in the finals against Italy with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Dementieva and Alla Kudryavtseva.
The United States will host Italy at a to-be-determined site in November. Italy beat the U.S. in the finals last year.
Mattek-Sands became the first American to win consecutive live matches since the current best-of-five format took effect in 1995.
And Oudin forthrightly answered the question of whether captain Mary Joe Fernandez should continue pursuing participation of Serena and Venus Williams for the team. Neither sister played in the first round against France last February (Oudin was the anchor), and even though Fernandez held out a spot for Venus until the last possible moment last week, Venus said no.
As Serena took to Twitter to publicize her appearance on the Home Shopping Network and Venus even Twittered once that she was bored last weekend, the lesser-ranked American women pulled out an unexpected win over a Russian team that while also missing some of its top-rated players (Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina) did have Dementieva.
Oudin was asked whether the women who won for the U.S. this time should be in the finals no matter who else might make themselves available (Williams sisters).
"I do think that," Oudin said. "I don't know if that will happen. But I do think that if we do end up winning ... people in the final I think are the people that have gotten us there. Last year as well. Last year we got to the final with the same team that played every single tie. I think that is the fairest thing to do, is to bring the team that's gotten you there. You should have enough faith in that team to be able to bring them to the finals."
Fernandez is in a no-win situation. Serena and Venus will sell tickets whereever the United States Tennis Assn. puts the finals. And ultimately this is a competition, and Serena and Venus are demonstrably and by far the best two players the U.S. has.
"I think everybody on this team wants to enjoy this victory," Fernandez said Sunday after the Russia win. "We have time before the next final. Our main goal is to win. So we will put together the best team possible to win the final. That's what we always do with every single tie. I have so much faith in this team right here. This has been my team. This is our core group. We're going to keep working with that."
And for those who might think Serena and Venus are disloyal or unprofessional for skipping Fed Cup except when it suits their purposes (doing whatever they must to be eligible every four years for the Olympics), take note:
Defending U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters tore a muscle in her foot while playing for Belgium against Estonia last weekend. The prognosis of needing six weeks to heal puts her at jeopardy of missing the next major tournament, the French Open.
And Justine Henin, who, no matter her ranking, would be the likely French Open favorite, broke a finger while practicing for Fed Cup last weekend.
So while they get criticized for rarely playing since the Australian Open (Serena not at all), the Williams sisters might arrive in Paris healthy at least and maybe right to wonder, why would you play Federation Cup?
-- Diane Pucin