U.S. digs deep in emotional win
The champagne was delivered to the Czech Republic's bench sometime during the second set. Doubles partners Iveta Benesova and Kveta Peschke were up a break on their American opponents and, to the delight of a home crowd in the city of Brno, they had another break point to win the match that would clinch their country's trip to the Fed Cup finals this fall.
On the other side of the net, Liezel Huber was swabbing at her eyes regularly as they welled up with tears of frustration between points. "I don't blame the people who turned their TVs off," the world's co-No. 1 doubles player told ESPN.com later by phone.
Huber's partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who was serving at 2-6, 2-5, 30-40, said she didn't even know it was championship point as the crowd noise swelled. That might have been a good thing. She missed her first serve, and tunnel vision spared her the facial expressions on the U.S. bench as the team came down to what was literally its last shot.
Mattek-Sands served again. Peschke hit a return long, delaying what seemed inevitable. The small lapse turned out to be that tickle in the throat that morphs into full-blown flu.
The Americans held and prevailed in a second-set tiebreaker, and the Czechs won only two games after that as Huber found a lethal serve out wide and Mattek-Sands suddenly rediscovered the doubles groove she was in last week when she was half of the winning team in Charleston.
After the U.S. team converted its second match point in front of a shell-shocked crowd, Huber jumped into Mattek-Sands' arms, shrieking, then felt her legs go rubbery and told her partner to hang onto her. "She almost fainted," Mattek-Sands said.
Huber was still hyperventilating hours afterward. "Somehow we found it, dug deep," said Huber, a naturalized U.S. citizen from South Africa who is always awash in emotion when she represents her adopted country. "I don't know where it came from. It was one step in front of the other and one ball at a time. It wasn't until we got that far down that we had to trust in each other and believe in each other. We both wanted the same thing -- to win."
And so it was that the Czech bubbly remained corked, and the delirious U.S. players and staff found themselves celebrating in a hotel meeting room with pizza, ice cream and an animated game of charades audible to an evening caller.
First word? Italy. That's where the U.S. team will travel for its first Fed Cup final since 2003, seeking its first title since 2000, when Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport swept the first three singles matches against Spain. Current captain Mary Joe Fernandez, a Fed Cup stalwart during her own playing career, had just retired.
Fernandez proudly saluted all her players but dubbed teenager Alexa Glatch the MVP for winning both her singles matches against top-50 players and allowing them only three games apiece in the process.
"She played beautifully, so composed," said Fernandez, who chose Glatch to play over the other up-and-coming U.S. player on the roster, Melanie Oudin. "We're trying to build and get the new generation on the right track. It's a little bit of a bonus to win while you're doing that."
Glatch, the tall Californian who is closing in on the top 100 (ranked 114th coming into the weekend) thanks to several recent titles on the lower-level ITF circuit, said she felt largely unfazed by the occasion even as she realized "how special and important it really is."
"I was able to play well and win those matches [against No. 29 Benesova, currently the country's top player, and No. 48 Petra Kvitova], which was good, 'cause we needed them pretty badly," said Glatch, who gets back to the grind in a $50,000 tournament in Charlottesville, Va., this week.
Unlike Davis Cup, which gives doubles its own showcase day between Friday singles and Sunday reverse singles, the Fed Cup format packs everything into two days and places doubles fifth and last. That usually means at least one player (Huber) has to wait all weekend to see whether her match will be decisive or meaningless, and another (Mattek-Sands) will be semi-trashed from playing singles. You can argue with the wisdom of that setup, but you can't argue with the drama it produced Sunday.
No. 43 Mattek-Sands was playing Fed Cup for the first time. Fernandez wanted to call her in for the first round in February, but a hip injury short-circuited that. The 26-year-old Minnesota native, once dismissed as a novelty act for her zany outfits, got down to serious business in a late-blooming breakout 2008 season when she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, advanced to her first WTA-level singles final and cracked the top 50.
But this weekend, Mattek-Sands lost her singles matches to Kvitova and No. 47 Lucie Safarova, and in the early going in doubles, it didn't look as if redemption was in her near future. "We didn't start out right, and Peschke was playing the entire court for them -- for a little while, we actually had trouble keeping the ball away from her," said Mattek-Sands. "But when we won that tiebreaker, you could see their morale going down.
"Right now, this has to be number one for me," Mattek-Sands said of where the experience ranks in her career.
No one gave the U.S. team and its patchwork quilt of players much of a chance in this road encounter. Italy will pose an even sterner challenge after its upset of defending champion Russia, which has won four of the past five Fed Cup titles. Fernandez cut to the chase on the obvious question.
"I go with the best team available," Fernandez said. "The bottom line is that it's about winning. Our best players are Serena and Venus. They've both been great in communicating, and I think if this tie had been at home, at least one of them would have played.
"They're my first choice. If they're not available, we move on down the line and see who's playing well and try to assemble the strongest team."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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