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.