Melanie Oudin on the bench, CoCo Vandeweghe gets the start at Fed Cup
Fourteen months ago Melanie Oudin was the toast of tennis, a pint-sized, big-hearted underdog who scrambled into the quarterfinals of the 2009 U.S. Open and also gave total commitment to playing for her country via Fed Cup.
Friday at SeaWorld in San Diego a sea lion plucked tennis balls out of a bowl, a fishy kind of photo op way of announcing who will play singles Saturday when the United States tries to upset defending champion Italy at the San Diego Sports Arena in the best-of-five championship format. With a frozen smile stuck on her face, Oudin applauded as captain Mary Joe Fernandez went with Fed Cup rookie CoCo Vandeweghe and Bethanie Mattek-Sands as her singles players Saturday.
Vandeweghe, 18 and from nearby Rancho Santa Fe, was named by Fernandez as the No. 2 singles player and as a result of the draw, Vandeweghe will open Saturday's schedule at 1 p.m. against Italy's No. 1 player, defending French Open champion Francesca Schiavone. In Saturday's second match, Mattek-Sands will play Flavia Pennetta.
Sunday's reverse singles right now have Mattek-Sands against Schiavone and then Vandeweghe against Pennetta followed by a doubles match pairing Liezel Huber and Oudin against Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. However, the captains can make substitutions before Sunday's matches, leaving Fernandez the option of playing Oudin in singles, for example, and having Huber play doubles with Mattek-Sands, which is the doubles team Fernandez has preferred this year.
Schiavone said her Saturday opponent was unexpected. "I am a little bit surprised," Schiavone said. "I think (Vandeweghe) is young, she's growing up. The captain has had the chance to study her a little bit more in Asia (this fall). So she knows how she's playing."
Fernandez said her decision was about matchups.
"Yesterday after a day of practice," Fernandez said, "after picking Bethanie to play, knowing she was our highest-ranked so we knew she would play, then the thinking was who would be the best matchup for Schiavone. She's such a different style of player than I think most players are accustomed to.
"So I decided with CoCo. With her height, her serve, her ability to really hit the ball (high), that's a good choice to start the day. Had it been reversed, Melanie probably would have started against Pennetta because she matches up very well against her."
Oudin couldn't hide all her disappointment, though she said the right thing. "Of course I wanted to play," she said. "But the thing is, it's not my decision. It's Mary Joe's decision. I think she made a good decision based on the team we have here. CoCo has been playing really, really well this week. The court suits her game as well as her big serve."
Schiavone, 30, uses more change-of-pace shots and prefers to play long and clever points, a style that is more suited to slower surfaces such as clay.
Vandeweghe is the first American to make her Fed Cup debut in a final since Chanda Rubin in 1995.
The rookie seemed ready for the spotlight. "Of course I think I can beat Francesca," Vandeweghe said. "We're going to discuss a game plan of how to play her, what kind of suits my game style against her game style, implement my game style to the best of my ability. That's what Mary Joe and I discussed. Whatever the outcome, she wants me to play the best I can, correctly, play smart tennis."
-- Diane Pucin, reporting from San Diego
Photo: Melanie Oudin returns a shot to Kaia Kanepi in a first-round match of the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. Credit: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images