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Monday, April 26, 2010
Will Fernandez fiddle with finals lineup?


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It should be abundantly clear by now that the current U.S. Fed Cup team, a crazy quilt of youth, experience and eccentricity, amounts to more than the sum of its parts. The weekend's semifinal victory over Russia was just the latest in a series of gutsy, get-it-done performances since Mary Joe Fernandez assumed the captaincy at the beginning of 2009.

Fed Cup, shoehorned into the tennis calendar at random intervals, hamstrung by the same arcane vocabulary that afflicts Davis Cup (best-of-five tilts are "ties" and individual matches unfortunately remain "rubbers"), occupies but a pixel or two in the big picture of American sports consciousness. Yet the nucleus of U.S. players who have raised their hands for the last couple of years are dedicated to the concept and to each other.

Melanie Oudin, who led off the weekend with a win, got to be part of a team again, thus shedding the individual burden of being the next "It Girl" of American tennis for a few days. Bethanie Mattek-Sands channeled her ebullient personality and entertaining all-court game into a heroine's role in Birmingham with back-to-back wins in singles and doubles.

Then there's doubles whiz Liezel Huber, straight from central casting, in the role of herself, the naturalized citizen who still cries when she hears the national anthem on court. "I appreciate everything this country has given me, and that's why I play every point the way I do," she said on court after she and Mattek-Sands demolished the listless Russian tandem of Elena Dementieva and Alla Kudryavtseva to clinch the Americans' second trip to the finals in as many years.

Having played the first two rounds in February and April, the U.S. team will disperse until the first week of November, the week after the WTA year-end championships. And that means that Fernandez has six months to ponder whether to stick with the crew that got her here -- including players such as Alexa Glatch and Jill Craybas and a few others who will come if healthy and summoned -- or resume her thus-far unrequited courtship of the nation's two top-10 players.

The captain wasn't about to carve anything in stone, or even write a lineup on a dry-erase board for the time being.

"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. This is our core group. We're going to keep working with that."

The will-they-or-won't-they subplot regarding the Williams sisters and Fed Cup is a familiar one by now. Fernandez has somehow managed the situation so that it hasn't been destructive to team morale, but that balancing act may be hard to maintain indefinitely.

Last year, Serena Williams requested the services of a USTA coach during the WTA championship week as preparation and tacit recompense for Fed Cup duty. She won the tour title, then pulled out of Fed Cup and fulfilled a commercial commitment. This time around, a spot was held open for Venus Williams several days past when it would have been reserved for anyone else. Waiting until the middle of the week to complete a roster when all parties are supposed to show up at the start is perilous in several ways. Venus' delayed RSVP last week was somewhat mitigated by the fact the Russians had to wait that long to figure out whether volcanic ash would clear sufficiently to allow travel, but there won't always be a natural disaster to provide cover for Fernandez.

It's pointless to try to divine the sisters' injury status or their sincerity unless you're a psychic, and it's a waste of energy to pass judgment. Those issues are between them, their diaries and their doctors. Venus and Serena obviously don't need Fed Cup to cement their immense, indisputable legacy. Neither has played for going on three years, and they have every right to put other things first. There is the matter of fulfilling the USTA's Olympic selection criteria, but all that entails is making themselves technically available for Fed Cup rather than actually playing. To be honest, it's hard to imagine the sisters hanging out and playing charades with the gang anyway.

Fernandez shouldn't be faulted for keeping the door propped open for the best players in the country and keeping her public statements supremely diplomatic, but it's not too much to expect those players to respect professional deadlines. The players who have showed up for the last couple of years understandably want to see things through to the end, and that also deserves respect.

Oudin didn't flinch when the question was posed. "I think that is the fairest thing to do, is to bring the team that's gotten you there," she said. "You should have enough faith in that team to be able to bring them to the finals."

No one on this or any national team should take selection for granted. There are plenty of examples in sport where one group of athletes lays the groundwork and another gets the glory -- relay teams that run or swim preliminary rounds before bowing out to the A-squad, or a World Cup soccer team that survives qualifiers only to see the roster rearranged for the big global dance. Those decisions are based on talent, not brownie points, and they can be brutal.

What needs to be sorted out between now and November, when the U.S. will host its first home Fed Cup final in a decade, is the risk/reward ratio of tinkering with something that's not broken. Should the Williamses be recruited to try to win? To sell tickets? To try to impel a greater number of people to care? Or can those same goals be accomplished with other players? It might be more productive to stop sending mixed messages. Then Fernandez can concentrate on continuing to perform the alchemy that has created a cohesive group of two-time finalists.