FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — The USTA announced on Thursday that it has extended U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez‘s contract through 2012.
Since her debut against Argentina in February 2009, the part-time broadcaster has guided the U.S. to a 4-1 record, her sole loss a 4-0 shutout in last year’s World Group Final in Calabria, Italy. But Fernandez will have a shot at payback when the U.S. hosts a rematch of last year’s final Nov. 6-7 at the 8,850-seat San Diego Sports Arena in San Diego, Calif. It’s the first time in a decade that the U.S. will play a Fed Cup Final on its home soil.
“When I look back on my career, my best memories come from team competition, when I represented my country, whether it was Maureen Connolly Cup when I was growing up, the Wightman Cup against England, or the Fed Cup and Olympics,” said Fernandez, who won gold medals in doubles at the ’92 and ’96 Olympic Games, and had a combined singles/doubles Fed Cup mark of 16-10. “To now be on the other end and be able to captain the team is pretty special. My biggest mentor when I was playing was Billie Jean King. Even when I was playing, she would talk to me, and she’d be like, ‘You’re going to be the captain one year. You’re good with the players. You help me out.’ She slowly molded me into really believing that this was something that was going to be up my alley.”
“I’m looking forward to the next two years, to continue building the next generation of players,” she added.
The elephant in the room, of course, is whether or not Serena and Venus Williams — both of whom have verbally committed to the tie — will actually show up in San Diego. Last year, both committed to play the Final, but were no-shows as the not-exactly-imposing foursome of Melanie Oudin, Alexa Glatch, Liezel Huber and Vania King went down in flames.
“We were hoping they were going to be in the final,” said Fernandez. “Unfortunately, because of injury and because of tiredness from the championships, they weren’t able to come to Italy.”
Should Venus be available, Fernandez hopes the Williams-Francesca Schiavone fourth-round clash at the U.S. Open is a foreshadowing of things to come. Venus carved out a 7-6(5), 6-4 win over the No. 7-ranked Schiavone, and remains undefeated against the Italian in eight career confrontations. A potential ninth meeting in San Diego is an intriguing thought given that the 30-year-old veterans exchanged barbs after the match in New York. After Schiavone asserted, “She doesn’t like to play with me. I play a different ball. I push her in defense. I don’t give her the chance to play how she wants, so every time I think we have a big fight…I will find the way to beat her,” Williams shot back, “I like seeing my name next to her name. I’m good with that…I really do enjoy our matchups, obviously, because I usually come out on top.”
“I like her head-to-head against Schiavone,” said Fernandez. “She’s never lost to her. I was looking at that match with special interest, trying to scout as much as possible. Obviously, Francesca is having the year of her career, having won the French Open. She’s very confident. You can see how much talent she has.”
Two-time champion Italy (captained by Corrado Barazutti) will most likely go with its proven quartet of Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. Fernandez must submit a four-player roster 10 days prior to the U.S vs. Italy showdown, but can tweak that lineup up to one hour before the draw ceremony, with the option of replacing two players in the original foursome. But, for now at least, Serena, Venus, Oudin, Huber and Bethanie Mattek-Sands are the candidates.
“I’m going to see how everybody plays the next couple of months,” observed Fernandez. “I’ll see who’s healthy, who’s winning matches, kind of wait as close as possible to the tie to know who’s the best prepared.”
Serena has only played six tournaments in 2010, and did not play the U.S. Open due to lacerations on her feet she says she suffered in a Munich bar. She originally said she would return at the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo later this month, but according to several sources, she likely won’t be ready until October or beyond.
“The ultimate goal is to win the Fed Cup and bring it back to the United States,” said Fernandez. “The best chance to do that is have the best players in the world. We’re so fortunate to have Serena and Venus. I’ve had great communication since taking over as captain with both of them. They’ve been very up front when they can play, when they definitely don’t want to play. Yeah, it’s disappointing when they can’t play.”
After announcing his resignation as Davis Cup captain this week, Patrick McEnroe reflected on his 10 years at the helm, saying one of his goals coming in was not to have to get down on his knees for the Samprases and Agassis of the world, that he wanted to attract players who were willing to make a commitment to the team, who really wanted to be out there. Fernandez concurs with that outlook, to a point, but likely won’t give up on pursuing the Williamses on a tie-to-tie basis.
Neither of the sisters has played Fed Cup since 2007. But both cherish the Olympic experience. And if they are planning on playing in London in 2012, they must make themselves eligible to play at least two Fed Cup ties in the next two years. If they do play, Fernandez will have to make a tough choice: go with the core group that has for two straight years played their way into the Fed Cup Final, or bring in the Williamses for a one-off, leaving some of that group on the bench.
“Billie Jean always said this to me: ‘You want players who want to be there. That’s the most important thing.’ I don’t go on my knees begging to anyone. This is what it is — ‘Do you want to play or do you not want to play?’ I love to have the best players play. It’s a very honest conversation. I understand with Venus and Serena that they’re in a different stage in their careers. They have different priorities. I think it’s been a very honest back and forth of where they are and what they’re thinking of Fed Cup is. Again, you want to win, so you want the best. But at the same time, if they can’t do it or they don’t want to be there, you want to have the players who want to be there.”
The fact that the Fed Cup Final is being played in the U.S. should be incentive for the Williamses to play. But even if they don’t, Fernandez says, with the home-court advantage, the U.S. has a legitimate shot at its first Fed Cup since winning back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000.
“San Diego is a great city. It’s a great tennis town. We get a lot of support there,” she said. “It was so nice in Birmingham to have that home-court advantage against Russia, to know that they’re behind you on every point. When you play Fed Cup or Davis Cup, every point is a big point, from the very first one. You win the first point and the crowd gets right into it. When you’re not doing as well and you win a point, you feel like you’re doing even better than you are. It really lifts you.”