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REGGIO CALABRIA, Italy -- If there's a cloud hanging over the Fed Cup final this week in Reggio Calabria, Italy, it probably centers around whether U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez should forget about trying to entice Serena and Venus Williams to the competition in the future.
Fernandez insists it wouldn't be prudent to permanently jettison the sisters from consideration. Nevertheless, even while she's taking the high road publicly, it's easy to sense Fernandez understands her pleas to play will likely go unanswered by the Williamses.
American Fed Cup promise for the future lies in the development of a primarily young team: Melanie Oudin, Alexa Glatch and Vania King fit the profile, while naturalized American Leizel Huber, 33, is the voice of experience on the current squad.
"The goal is to develop a new generation," Fernandez said. "You look at the history of the William sisters and they haven't played that much Fed Cup. However, you're ultimate goal is to win. Hopefully, they'll show up one day. You want them to have the same amount of [national] pride everyone else has, but you can't force that on anyone."
The U.S. is hoping for a third consecutive surprise upset of a more established team this year, which would result in an 18th Fed Cup title -- but the first victory since 2000. The Italians, who boast a more established squad of Flavia Pennetta, Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, have been in three of the past four finals and are looking for Fed Cup crown No. 2.
Under the circumstances -- no sister stars in sight -- recent U.S. Open quarterfinalist Oudin is the player who will receive the most scrutiny on the fledgling American team. The vivacious Oudin, who turned 18 since her U.S. Open success story, is undeniably America's most promising female player in a very long time.
"I think it's a little bit about me, now that the William sisters aren't playing," Oudin told ESPN after winning the inaugural Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Heart Award. "I like having pressure put on me. I've had pressure before and it's good to deal with it and figure out how to learn to handle it. So, if I play the No. 1 spot and everyone is looking at me to do well, then I'm going to try and fulfill what I want to do."
This is Oudin's debut season playing Fed Cup -- she played the quarterfinal home tie against Argentina, but was benched in favor of Glatch in the away semifinal against the Czech Republic.
The Italian crowds will be boisterous and passionate, especially for Pennetta -- a native of Southern Italy, the region where the final is being contested. Oudin has experience dealing with fervent crowds, but that was in New York in front of her hometown fans.
"I'm just going to take everything as it comes and am just worrying about my game and getting better, and I'm still learning," Oudin said. "This is a learning year for me. There were so many new experiences for me and I think next year will be the same."
Oudin's feet still seem firmly planted on the ground, and her post-U.S. Open outings were humbling at best. She attempted to qualify for two Asian events and failed to make the cut -- she lost in the second round at Tokyo and the first round at Beijing.
"The U.S. Open was huge for me, it just proved to me I belong," Oudin said. "But it was mentally and physically exhausting, so going to Asia may not have been the best idea. I wasn't at my best and I was tired."
The No. 47-ranked Oudin, who will go off against Schiavone in the second match Saturday, is hoping to make this last stop of the season a winner. Although she isn't predicting a surprise ending, she did act as though she possessed a secret weapon: "I love playing on red clay," she said. "I know Americans usually don't like it, but I'm very excited about it."
Her first trip to Italy already holds a special memory: The Heart Award enabled her to select any recipient of her choice to receive a $5,000 donation.
"The Heart Award is for the player who best represents their country, fought and used the most heart at other Fed Cup ties and the whole year," Oudin said. "I got to donate to the charity of my choice and I chose Egleston Hospital because my little sister [Christina] actually had open-heart surgery in that hospital about seven years ago [when she was 4]. They did an amazing job taking care of her, and she's 100 percent now, just like any normal little kid."