With the top U.S. players, Serena and Venus Williams, unavailable for the first round of Federation Cup, new captain Mary Joe Fernandez was dealt an impossible hand. With a team comprised of 34-year-old Jill Craybas and 17-year-old Melanie Oudin, ranked 151 in singles and making her debut, the U.S. was in an unenviable position versus Argentina. However, in Surprise, Arizona, Oudin proved to be the best of all surprises.
As a clamorous crowd cheered on, Oudin won Sunday’s second rubber to push the event into a fifth match. As it came down to the wire, Liezel Huber, doubles world number one and recently naturalized citizen, and Julie Ditty pulled off a 6-2, 6-3 victory for the U.S. to move on to the semifinals.
In the first match on Saturday, Craybas defeated her 20-year-old Betina Jozami 6-2, 6-1 to give the Americans a leg up. After starting out poorly, Craybas quickly recovered. Craybas’ years of accumulated knowledge was the difference, as she won her first Fed Cup match on home soil. Similarly, in the second rubber, Gisela Dulko at 24, a tour veteran, utilized her experience to beat Oudin in straight sets 6-2, 7-5. After being blown away in the first set, Oudin saved match point and broke in the second to tie it at 5 all. But, the next game, Oudin lost her serve. Dulko shut out the set with a love game. So, the first day, the teams split the two rubbers.
In Sunday’s first rubber, on paper, it was an excellent match-up for the Americans because of Craybas’ great record against Dulko. Yet, in the first set, Craybas, bitten by the unforced error bug, let Dulko cruise through. Then, in the second set, Craybas went down an early break at 1-4 and never caught up. With a well-angled backhand volley winner, Dulko extended her lead to 5-2 and closed out the match with a crosscourt forehand pass. With a 6-1, 6-3 victory, Dulko gave Argentina a 2-1 lead.
Now, the team’s survival rested squarely on the shoulders of teenager Oudin. Moreover, in all their years of Federation Cup competition, the Americans have never overcome a two to one deficit to proceed to the next round. Oudin demonstrated that she was the right person for the task. Facing Jozami, after being broken at love in the first game, Oudin surrendered her serve a second time and eventually lost the set. However, with the encouragement of the fans and her captain, Oudin worked her way back into the match. After holding serve, Oudin, aided by a double fault and poor shot selection by Jozami, broke for 2-0. Then, by putting away a short ball for a forehand winner, Oudin secured a double break lead for 4-0. Perhaps, because of a brief rain interlude, Oudin lost her concentration and her serve. But, with her opponent’s donation of another double fault, Oudin got the break back and with a down the line backhand winner, she closed out the second set. In the third, Oudin double faulted to give Argentina a 2-0 advantage. Nonetheless, the American forced four backhand errors from the Argentine to level the set. After saving double break point, Oudin converted a break point with a backhand winner for 3-2. As Jozami’s game crumbled, Oudin obtained an insurance break and won the match 2-6, 6-1, 6-2.
In the last rubber, Huber and Ditty faced Dulko and Jozami. After four consecutive breaks of serve, the Americans held at love to get ahead 3-2. With great net play from Huber, the U.S. captured the break for 4-2. Then by putting away an overhead, the U.S. claimed a second break and the first set. In a tight second set, the Argentines swatted away four break points in a seven deuce game to make it 2 all. But, in the eight game, team U.S.A. produced a forehand volley winner for the break and a 5-3 lead. With a forehand up the line winner, Huber arrived at match point. Then, with a volley winner, Ditty sealed the deal.
The U.S. will take on the Czech Republic in the semifinals. The Czech squad destroyed Spain, last year’s finalist, by a score of 4-1. Italy abused France, winning all five rubbers to advance. In the first rubber, Amelie Mauresmo buckled after being up a set and a break against Flavia Pennetta. Italy will face Russia, the defending champion. The Russians squashed their Chinese counterparts, impressively defeating them 5-0. With their wealth of talent, the Russians are in a prime position to repeat as champions.