- Sandra Harwitt
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LIEVIN, France -- When you're young, talented and ambitious, you anxiously await the big breakthrough. Sometimes, however, that big breakthrough comes a bit too soon.
For players such as Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis, to name a few, early success led to a swift uphill journey to stardom and champion status.
But for Melanie Oudin, 18, a surprising run to the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals raised expectations. And although there's no doubting the competitive drive and determination of the counterpunching Oudin, her game still is in need of maturation.
Bumps in the road are normal, and Oudin has taken some bruises since the U.S. Open. In the seven matches she played during that stretch, she won one qualifying match. Heading into this weekend's Fed Cup quarterfinals encounter with France, Oudin, ranked No. 53 on the WTA, had most recently lost first-round matches at Hobart and the Australian Open.
The Georgia native will anchor the American squad traveling to Liévin, France, as the highest-ranked singles player on the team. She will be backed by either No. 102 Shenay Perry or No. 140 Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and will benefit from Liezel Huber's sisterly guidance and stature as the world's No. 1 doubles player. Oudin is willing to take the pole position for the team, which she indicated when shouldering the responsibility for a 4-0 U.S. defeat against Italy in last year's Fed Cup final.
The good news for the U.S. is that, with the recent retirement of Fed Cup stalwarts Amelie Mauresmo and Nathalie Dechy, France is fielding a less formidable team than usual. All of French captain Nicolas Escude's recruits rank outside the top 50 in singles: No. 65 Alize Cornet, No. 76 Julie Coin, No. 104 Pauline Parmentier and No. 137 Stephanie Cohen-Aloro.
"We're hoping to pull off another upset," U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez said via e-mail. "It's always harder playing away, but this is a good opportunity considering Mauresmo and Dechy retired. They have talented players and we hope to match up well with them.
"Melanie's a great team player who you know will leave it all out there. Bethanie came through big-time in Brno [Czech Republic, in the Fed Cup semifinal last year], played well at the Australian Open, and can play singles and doubles. Shenay qualified in Australia, has Fed Cup experience and can also play singles and doubles -- plus she has a different game style to complement the team. Liezel, as always, is a team leader and clutch player."
The French, who have won the Fed Cup twice, own the home-court advantage on a preferred indoor clay surface, which should serve them well. However, Coin and Parmentier are Fed Cup newbies, Cohen-Aloro hasn't played since 2003, and Cornet has an 0-6 record in Fed Cup outings.
The U.S. holds a 10-1 lead over France in Fed Cup, but the French won their last encounter in the 2003 final. The U.S. has won 17 Fed Cup titles -- more than any other nation -- but has been denied the title since 2000.
If the U.S. team can handle playing away and navigates the sluggish clay court -- incidentally, Oudin professes to enjoy competing on the dirt -- this tie could be evenly matched. Assuming the Americans can keep themselves alive to 2-2, Huber could capably usher the team to victory in the doubles.
And Oudin could have her own secret weapon for this particular encounter. She's of French heritage, which might sway a fan or two in the crowd to her side.
Italy versus Ukraine
Past Fed Cup results: Italy leads series 2-0
Italy, the dynamic Fed Cup team of late, will try to defend its 2009 crown with the winning team of Flavia Pennetta, Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. The glitch in this quarterfinal outing is that the Ukraine has the home-court advantage in Kharkiv, and despite the fact this marks the country's first appearance in the illustrious World Group, it features a seasoned team.
The sisters Bondarenko -- Alona and Kateryna -- are both ranked in the top 40. Alona is 21-10 lifetime in Fed Cup (14-7 in singles; 7-3 in doubles) and led the Ukraine to the World Group with two singles victories against Argentina in the World Group Playoff round last year. Kateryna has a 12-5 Fed Cup record (4-5 singles/8-0 doubles). If the Bondarenkos use the positive energy from the crowd, they could pull off the upset. But Pennetta (2-0 against Alona and 2-1 against Bondarenko) and Schiavone (4-2 against Alona and 1-0 against Kateryna) have proven Fed Cup gets their competitive juices and national pride flowing.
Czech Republic versus Germany
Past Fed Cup results: Czech Republic leads series 4-1
The deck seems stacked in favor of the Czech Republic in this quarterfinal tie against Germany. The Brno arena should be crowded with nearly 4,000 fans rooting for the home team. Moreover, Lucie Safarova, the most accomplished player on the Czech team, is a native of the city. Safarova holds an edge against the two likely German singles competitors -- 2-1 over Anna-Lena Groenefeld and 1-0 against Andrea Petkovic, the only player on the German squad ranked in the top 20.
Serbia versus Russia
Past Fed Cup results: Russia leads series 3-0
(All three matches took place when Russia still competed as the USSR and Serbia competed as Yugoslavia.)
Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev, who has led the team to four Fed Cup titles since 2004, played last minute switchup to change his initially B-rated lineup to "A" quality when fourth-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova, a two-time Grand Slam champion, replaced the previously named Ekaterina Makarova on the team. Tarpischev apparently ofered a wry smile when it was suggested he might have always known Kuznetsova was going to play, but what's important now is he has true leadership in Kuzy, who heads a squad that also includes Alisa Kleybanova, Vera Dushevina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
This is the Serbians' first foray into the coveted Fed Cup World Group and, on paper, the teaming of Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic should put them in serious contention for the title. But Ivanovic has struggled with injuries since winning the 2008 French Open, and Jankovic, although still a top-10 player, isn't performing up to her ranking. Nevertheless, a Serbian crowd that rarely gets to see its stars in action should rock the house, an added element that could help deliver a knockout punch to the Russians.
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
Melanie Oudin has taken her lumps since an unexpected run at the 2009 U.S. Open. But heading into this weekend's Fed Cup tie, U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez sees hope in Oudin's grit and a weakened French squad.