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US tops Russia, will face Italy in Fed Cup final

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Mary Joe Fernandez was perfectly content with her current Fed Cup roster, particularly after a marathon effort by Bethany Mattek-Sands.

Mattek-Sands recorded back-to-back singles and doubles wins in Sunday's semifinal matchup with Russia for a 3-2 win.

She and doubles partner Liezel Huber breezed by Russia's Elena Dementieva and Alla Kudryavtseva 6-3, 6-1 to clinch a second straight finals berth against defending champion Italy. This time the Americans will have the home court advantage Nov. 6-7 at an undetermined site in the United States. The U.S. has won a record 17 times, the last coming in 2000.

Fernandez, the team captain, wasn't about to start pondering the lingering question about the finals. Will she go with the group that got them to that point or enlist help from Serena or Venus Williams?

"I think everybody on this team wants to enjoy this victory," Fernandez said. "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."

Mattek-Sands beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 in the second match Sunday to keep the U.S. title hopes alive in the best-of-five contest. The match was all but over after Mattek-Sands got mad over a fault call on a first serve in the final set. She then double-faulted but responded with a nifty drop shot to go up 4-1, sticking her hands out palms-up and wriggling her fingers to the fans.

It got the crowd — and herself — fired up. She won the next game at love.

"I was able to get the crowd behind me," Mattek-Sands said. "I think that really helped me and was tough for her. I know that's her first Fed Cup so why not let her feel the wrath of it, being away."

Sixth-ranked Dementieva's 7-6 (7-4), 0-6, 6-3 win over Melanie Oudin had put the Russians up 2-1.

Italy advanced to its fourth Fed Cup final in five years with a 5-0 victory over the Czech Republic.

Mattek-Sands became the first American to win consecutive live matches — first singles and then doubles — to close out a Fed Cup tie since the best-of-five format was adopted in 1995.

Fernandez (1996) and Lindsay Davenport (1995) are the only Americans to win two last-day live matches. Mattek-Sands had a hectic 30-minute break between matches, soaking in hot-cold showers, retaping her feet and stretching. She had to finish eating during breaks in her match.

Oudin was more emphatic than her captain on who she thinks should represent the U.S.: "The people that have gotten us there."

"I think that is the fairest thing to do," she said. "You should have enough faith in that team to be able to bring them to the finals."

Makarova had subbed for a struggling Kudryavtseva in the second reverse singles with Russia trying to nail down the win before getting to Huber, the world's No. 1 doubles player.

Huber and Mattek-Sands also secured a spot in the final with a doubles win over the Czech Republic last year — after dropping a set and coming down to a tiebreaker on the second. Huber is 3-0 in decisive Cup doubles matches.

"Before going on the court, I was like, 'Is this real? Is this really coming down to doubles?'" Huber said. "Then I looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'This is why you play and why you work hard.'"

With only three players making the trip, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev had to pair Dementieva and Kudryavtseva for the first time in their careers — without the benefit of practicing together.

"It was very hard to go into the doubles match without any practice and play against the No. 1 in doubles," Dementieva said. "We were hoping to win the singles match and not go into the doubles."

The tightly contested match between Oudin and Dementieva put the Americans in a 2-1 hole Sunday. Neither player managed to hold serve in the first 10 games in the 2-hour, 37-minute match, and Dementieva had six double faults.

"I think this match was most important to the semifinals," said Dementieva, 22-5 in Fed Cup singles matches. "I think we both were feeling a lot of pressure."

"I fought as hard as I could, I did the best I could," Oudin said. "Unfortunately, it wasn't good enough today. She stepped it up at the very end, and that's why she's No. 6 in the world. She's 10 years older that me, and that experience definitely helped her at the end of the match."