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U.S. underdogs bank on vocal support in Fed Cup final

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Outranked and under-strength, the United States aim to make the most of passionate home crowd support when they host holders Italy in this weekend's Fed Cup final at the San Diego Sports Arena.

For the second year in a row, the Americans have been deprived of their top two players, Serena and Venus Williams, because of injury and captain Mary Joe Fernandez has urged U.S. fans to give her team the biggest boost possible.

"Bring all the noisemakers," a smiling Fernandez told reporters during the build-up to the November 6-7 final which will be played on an indoor hardcourt surface. "Whatever you got, bring it out here.

"I want the crowd to be as vocal as possible. It gives you such a boost when you're playing well, but even when maybe things aren't going well, it keeps you motivated."

Under Fernandez's captaincy, the U.S. have reached a second successive final but they were whitewashed 4-0 by Italy in Reggio Calabria last year after struggling on a slow, red-clay surface.

"It was like we were playing on mud, the ball did not bounce," said American teenager Melanie Oudin, who will appear in her second successive Fed Cup final.

"The crowd and everything, it just seemed to play out like everything was against us and for them. This surface is gonna suit our whole team a lot better than the surface did last year."

Based on how U.S. team practice has progressed so far this week for the best-of-five match series, Fernandez agreed.

SURFACE COMFORT

"It makes a big difference when you're home, playing on a surface that the team prefers," the American captain said. "We can really feel it in our practices, and we're just feeling that much more comfortable.

On paper, the odds are certainly stacked against the home team.

Italy, who are in the final for the fourth time in five years, will be led by French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, the world number seven, with 23rd-ranked Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani (42nd) and Roberta Vinci (38th) also in the line-up.

Although American Liezel Huber is the world's top-ranked doubles player, Bethanie Mattek-Sands (58th) is their leading singles player with Melanie Oudin 67th and 18-year-old Coco Vandeweghe a lowly 114th.

"The majority of the time, our opponents have been ranked higher and we've been the underdogs," said Fernandez. "But there's a reason why you go out and play the matches. We have seen upsets in the past.

"Yes, Italy are accomplished and they have experience. They're a fantastic team. But we will do what we can on our side of the court. If we can execute game plans and play well, all the matches are winnable."

Italy are fielding the same triumphant line-up from last year's final but their players accept they face a very different task on foreign soil.

"In Fed Cup, anything can happen, so you have to be really focused," Pennetta said. "We just have to respect the other player and go on the court and play our best."

Schiavone felt the Italians had improved round by round during this year's Fed Cup.

"Our team always competes with energy and confidence and this year we have more experience," she added. "But we are also curious to see how we go in this final because to play at home is very different."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)