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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- They're even. The Fed Cup semifinalist squads from the United States and Russia, depleted by injury and disinterest, essentially have three combatants apiece instead of the requisite four.
Now, finally, the story can be about who is here instead of who's not. It's actually a pretty good tale, even though there's only one top-10 player in the combined lineups.
Melanie Oudin, whose breakthrough runs at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open came a mere matter of months ago, will fill the No. 1 singles slot for the U.S. team. That's no longer a stretch. Oudin won both of her Fed Cup matches on the road in France in February, and she rose to a career-high No. 31 on the WTA charts this week. Doubles cornerstone Liezel Huber, the world No. 1 who is ecstatic every time she dons the national colors, will play in her sixth consecutive Fed Cup competition. After Venus Williams made her regrets official at midweek, U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez named the preternaturally poised Sloane Stephens, who was already on site as a practice partner, to the fourth spot. But Stephens, 17, won't play unless someone else gets hurt.
The U.S. chances may well rest on the racquet of the perpetually upbeat Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who is slated to play the other two singles matches and team up with Huber for doubles.
It has been a while since Mattek-Sands was better known for her campy outfits than her court savvy -- so long, in fact, that it seems less and less worth mentioning. Mattek-Sands showed up in 2008 fit and determined to be something more than a fashion footnote. She reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, played in her first WTA singles final, went deep in some other tournaments and showed a lot of mettle playing big players on big stages.
The following year, Fernandez tabbed Mattek-Sands for her first Fed Cup duty in what looked like a losing proposition, a tough semifinal in the Czech Republic. She lost her two singles matches, but thanks to a pair of gritty wins by Alexa Glatch, Mattek-Sands found herself back out on the court for the decisive doubles match with Huber. They were down match point before managing to extricate themselves in near-magical fashion.
Mattek-Sands laughed at the memory. "What was it, 6-1, 5-1, 40-15, I had second serve … You can't come back from more than that, really," she said. (The Czechs actually led 5-2, 40-30 on her serve in the second set, but who's counting?) Phoenix-based Mattek-Sands appeared completely comfortable while others sweated at a dais bathed in intense sunshine at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. She hasn't lost one bit of her sense of humor even as she's forced the world to take her more seriously.
Huber, 33, and Mattek-Sands, 25, are a charmingly odd couple who go back a very long way, even though they had never played tour-level doubles together before last year. They were both members of the now-defunct Hartford FoxForce of World Team Tennis back in 2000, when Mattek-Sands was a newly minted 15-year-old pro with an unhyphenated name and the South African was a new bride still years away from becoming a U.S. citizen.
One is calculating and methodical on the court. The other operates more on instinct. But they are both emotionally engaged, excellent doubles players. Huber has the more diamond-studded résumé, but Mattek-Sands is accomplished in her own right, with eight WTA titles -- including one this season with her recent regular partner, Zi Yan of China. Mattek-Sands is currently ranked No. 14 in the world in doubles.
"I haven't played with somebody as free as Bethanie ever," Huber said. "It's like, whatever goes. If anyone knows me, I plan ahead, so it's been really fun and it's been really spontaneous. Thanks, Bethanie, it's been a life lesson."
Delayed by the volcano-related air traffic disruptions, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev arrived in Birmingham on Wednesday late and without his ostensible second singles player, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who was said to be injured and stayed behind in Moscow. Alla Kudryavtseva will compete in her stead, although she wryly noted that her selection may have had something to do with the fact she was already on the right side of the Atlantic.
Tarpischev tabbed his No. 1 singles player, Elena Dementieva, to team up with Ekaterina Makarova in doubles, a decision that is not binding. Huber openly speculated that the world No. 6, who rarely plays doubles in Fed Cup or on the tour, would not be called upon if the result comes down to the final match of the best-of-five.
"We would like to win this tie before it gets to the doubles," Huber said. "Having said that, we are here to play a deciding match." She then lowered her voice melodramatically. "We're going to take them down."