Williams-less Fed Cup team stays positive

Bethanie Mattek-Sands is exactly the type of personality that any Fed Cup captain would want on their team -- willing to play singles and doubles, able to adjust quickly from the green clay to fast indoor hardcourts and states as her ambition to bring the trophy home for her nation.

Fortunately for U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez, Mattek-Sands will be on her team this weekend to face Russia in Birmingham, Alabama. Mattek doesn't have Venus or Serena Williams' resumes -- not by a long shot -- but neither of the U.S.' two best players has deigned to play again, both sitting out in order to rehab knee injuries.

In an individual sport like tennis, asking a player to take one for the team when she is risking a strong future individual performance is somewhat akin to asking a star baseball pitcher to go nine innings in an All-Star game.

Many of the players don't see the value of Fed Cup -- much less Davis Cup -- anymore. Some of the Eastern Europeans have complained about not being paid for duty, others have said they have sustained injuries during the competition and haven't received enough sympathy or kudos later on.

That thread can be traced to Venus' decision not to play this time around. But despite having her name bandied about, the injured Serena never seriously considered playing Fed Cup. She hasn't played a match since winning the Australian Open and has taken a wild card into Rome in 10 days time. Serena has been practicing a fair amount, but she wants to make a great showing at the French Open and has no desire to go on to an indoor hardcourt and risk banging up her knee.

With 12 Grand Slam titles Serena is clearly the best player of her generation, but Serena has been the least committed star Fed Cup player in U.S. history. She's played four ties in the last 11 years and has contested one match of serious significance -- her win over Italy's Rita Grande in the 1999 semifinals. Compare that with the attendance of Chris Evert, Monica Seles or Lindsay Davenport. Despite repeatedly saying that she loves Fed Cup, Serena has played all of one singles match in the past seven years while her nation hasn't won a crown since 2000.

A more accurate description of her feelings toward the competition would be the following: When asked what Melanie Oudin's rise meant to American tennis, Serena replied that she was happy because there wouldn't be pressure for her to play Fed Cup anymore.

Venus is another case altogether, holding a 17-4 record in Fed Cup and having been the United States' go-to player for much of this decade. However, she hasn't played since the 2007 semifinals, when Russia shocked the U.S. 3-2 in Stowe, Vt., behind a doubles victory by Nadia Petrova/Elena Vesnina over Williams/Lisa Raymond. Venus has a long memory, and also recalls 2005, when she made the courageous yet risky decision after winning Wimbledon to go play on clay against Russia in Moscow and consequently injured herself, taking her out of serious competition the rest of the summer.

Dementieva is a bit like Venus, a one-time Fed Cup warrior who enters this tie with a 24-8 record, but having played most of her matches from 2000-2006. She did play a tie against China last year, and if the two-time Grand Slam finalist hadn't consented to compete this weekend, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev would be fielding his weakest team ever.

Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonareva and Nadia Petrova all turned down spots and Dinara Safina and Alisa Kleybanova are too injured to play. It looks like his second singles player, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, is also too hurt to play and as of this writing he had a three-woman team with the relatively weak Ekaterina Makarova and Alla Kudryavtseva backing up Dementieva.

What that means is that the U.S. has a very decent shot of winning the tie and hosting its first home final against the winner of the Italy-Czech Republic semifinal.

Oudin just hit a career high ranking of No. 31 and showed in her two victories against France that she's capable of competing under pressure. She also owns a win over Dementieva at last year's U.S. Open.

"Mel's a grinder and makes you work for your points," Mattek-Sands said. "She'll fight for every point and that's an attribute that helps in Fed Cup."

Liezel Huber is one of the world's top doubles players and with Mattek-Sands managed to seal a win over the Czechs last year.

All the U.S. has to do is find a way to win two singles matches and they should be able to lock it up in the doubles -- that is, if they can shake the feeling of having to wait too long for Venus to make her decision. Fernandez gave Venus a full week after she first named the squad and held a spot open for her until Williams phoned in a no.

"It kind of threw everyone for a loop, especially me, because I have to be ready for singles and doubles," Mattek-Sands said. "It's better to know in advance. In my mind I was playing singles (anyway). I joined the Fed Cup team thinking that would be the case because Venus and Serena have been 50-50 the whole way through."

While Oudin will be the U.S.'s No. 1 single player, it's Mattek-Sands who may matter most, as she could be called upon to win all three of her matches.

Ranked No. 129, she hasn't found it easy to return from an injury-riddled 2009, but she's made progress, posting a 12-6 record this year and nearly knocking off Pavlyuchenkova in Ponte Vedra Beach and No. 25 Alona Bondarenko in Charleston.

"I'm happy with where I'm at, especially physically because last couple years I'd be able to play one tough match and not be able to come out the next day and feel good," said the 24-year-old Mattek-Sands, who reached a career high No. 37 in March of 2009. "I've been able to that this year and that's been a positive or me. ... My serve is a lot better. I'm serving and volleying, coming in off some returns, mixing it up, but I need more consistency."

The U.S. holds a 4-3 edge over Russia, but has lost the last three ties. Mattek-Sands scored a win over France's Alize Cornet in the U.S.' opening round win over France in February, but knows that taking out the likes of the sixth-ranked Dementieva will be very difficult.

"Dementieva's groundstrokes are her biggest weapons," she said. "Her second serve can be on and off, so you have to try and get in her head on her second serve, but from the baseline she's pretty solid."

Even without the likes of Sharapova, Kuznetsova and the Williams sisters, the tie should be quite competitive. It may be lacking in star power, but at least the women who will be raking balls off the ground want to be there and the fans in attendance should be able to pick up on their positive energy.

The last U.S. Fed Cup team to win the title was a decorated group that included Davenport, Seles, Raymond and Jennifer Capriati. This group doesn't come in with as many major crowns but is pretty spunky.

"Getting to the final of Fed Cup would be awesome," Mattek-Sands said. "We have a good team and we've fought it out. We are all good friends and it makes for a good atmosphere and that's a big part of Fed Cup. That's what gets a lot of teams through, even if you don't have the better players."