Fed Cup Shocker: Mattek-Sands Plays Hero as U.S. Rallies to Defeat Russia

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58227056Mary Joe Fernandez has taken a few hits of late for her inability to bring either Serena or Venus Williams back into the Fed Cup fold.  But with Sunday’s come-from-behind performance at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena, it just got a bit harder to find fault.  The second-year captain will lead her team to the Fed Cup Final for the second time in as many tries.

Sans the Williams sisters, the U.S. rallied to defeat Russia 3-2 in the semis, thus earning the right to host defending champ Italy in the Fed Cup Final, Nov. 6-7.  It marks the first time the U.S. will host the Final since ’00, which is also the last time the U.S. won the title.

Playing on U.S. soil for the first time in her brief Fed Cup career, Bethanie Mattek-Sands became the first American to win back-to-back matches on the final day to lead the U.S. to victory.  With the U.S. trailing 2-1, Mattek-Sands edged last-minute sub Ekaterina Makarova 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 in two hours, 34 minutes, then (just a half-hour later) teamed with South African-turned-American Liezel Huber to defeat Elena Dementieva/Alla Kudryavtseva in doubles 6-3, 6-1 to clinch.

“The Russians have a stacked country — so many players,” said Mattek-Sands, although, like Fernandez, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev failed to bring in all his top stars in Dinara Safina, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova, Nadia Petrova or Vera Zvonareva. “It was a total group effort.  It was hard play and determination by everyone on the team. It was a lot of matches and was extremely draining.”

“It’s an amazing effort,” said Fernandez of Mattek-Sands’ effort. “It’s always tough to have to play back-to-back Fed Cup singles, doubles. The good news is that Bethanie’s used to it. On a weekly basis, she’s played doubles and singles.”

Melanie Oudin defeated Kudryavtseva Saturday in the opener to give the U.S a quick 1-0 lead, but came up short on Sunday 7-6(4), 0-6, 6-3 against Dementieva (who had earlier scored a 6-4, 6-3 win over Mattek-Sands).

Italy posted a 4-0 shutout over the U.S. in last year’s Fed Cup final on the red clay of Reggio Calabria.  The USTA will select the site for the ’10 Final in mid-June.

“I have so much faith in this team right here,” said Fernandez, as if hinting that she’ll no longer bother to chase the elusive Williamses, neither of whom has played a Fed Cup tie since ‘07. “This has been my team. This is our core group. We’re going to keep working with that.”

FED CUP NOTEBOOK

THE MATTEK-SANDS THROUGH THE HOURGLASS: There are no limits to the boundaries of surprise in sports, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ emergence as hero proves that.  The likeable Wisconsin native, who gained her 15 minutes of fame by sporting provocative outfits from leopard skin atrocities to dime-store-cowgirl-meets-soccer-player ensembles, became the first player ever to win the fourth and fifth matches in Fed Cup competition to lead her team to triumph.  Shockingly, Mattek-Sands was sensibly dressed (with the exception of those knee-high socks).

NOT MESSING AROUND: Most tattoos in sports are delicate little offerings that only hint at rebellion.  But Mattek-Sands arm-length ink job is no dainty embellishment.  (Her NBA-lite tattoo runs more than half the length of her arm.)

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION: The Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena is one of only seven venues to have hosted both the Davis and Fed Cups, all of which brings to mind: 1. Before he pulled out, Roger Federer was supposed to appear in Birmingham last February as the leader of the Swiss team.  2. Tony Godsick is Federer’s agent.  3. And Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez is Godsick’s wife.

ONCE A DECADE SOUNDS ABOUT RIGHT TO US: Its loss in Birmingham was certainly a setback, but Russia has won four of the last six Fed Cups.  The last time the U.S. won was in 2000 (but overall the Americans have won 17 Fed Cup titles).

THE SMOOTHEST MOST PREDICTABLE SLIGHT OF HAND IN TENNIS – THE SHAMIL SHUFFLE: Yet another last-minute lineup shift by Russia’s iconic Fed/Davis Cup coach Shamil Tarpischev was on display on Sunday, when he inserted the young lefty Ekaterina Makarova in the reverse singles and teamed Alla Kudryavtseva with Elena Dementieva in doubles.  (Neither shuffle worked.)

THE MELTDOWN THAT NEVER HAPPENED: Tennis conspiracy theorists woke up from their long naps when, just like Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, Dementieva was called for a foot fault just two points from her win over Melanie Oudin.  But this time, instead of a huge meltdown, a lingering controversy and a $92,000 fine, noting happened.

WHAT’S MORE ASTOUNDING?: 1. That the U.S. Fed Cuppers were led by 18-year-old Oudin and journeywoman Mattek-Sands (not Serena or Venus Williams)?  2. That the Russians were without Safina, Kuznetsova, Sharapova, Petrova and Zvonareva?  3. Or that the Italians (without any real stars) is once again headed for the Fed Cup final?

TRAVEL TRAUMA: Tarpischev left Moscow on Sunday, but didn’t arrive in Birmingham until Wednesday due to lingering ash from the volcanic eruption in Iceland, which kept planes on the ground and paralyzed travel across Europe.  (The only reason Dementieva was on time was that she was in Atlanta visiting boyfriend Maxim Afinogenov of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers.

CAN’T ANYBODY HOLD THEIR SERVE HERE?: One of the best on-air quips in French Open history came from John McEnroe, who, when calling a Dementieva match, said, “She’s in danger of holding her serve.  The Fed Cup match between Dementieva and Oudin prompted similar observations.  Incredibly, for the first 10 games, neither the No. 6-ranked Russian nor the No. 31-ranked American could hold their serve.  Dementieva went on to lose seven of her first eighth service games.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Oudin had 20 break-point opportunities in her match against Dementieva, but couldn’t prevail.