By Blair Henley
The U.S. Fed Cup team pulled off an impressive win over Russia last Sunday – without the Williams sisters.
A roster spot was left open for Venus or Serena, should one of them be healthy enough to play, but both withdrew from the contest just days before it began. Though they both cited lingering knee injuries, their failure over the years to consistently represent the United States has frustrated many American tennis supporters. It’s no surprise that fans are calling for team captain, Mary Joe Fernandez, to stick with this weekend’s winning trio of Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Liezel Huber for the final against Italy in November. If this were a sport that offered bonus points for loyalty, I would immediately jump on that bandwagon. Too bad that’s not the case. Fernandez needs to assemble the team with the best possible chance of winning the Cup, even if that means ousting one or more of the gutsy players who got them there.
The unlikely heroine against Russia was none other than world No. 128 Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who is often recognized more for her outrageous wardrobe choices than for her notable play. Though her stellar performance on the final day of competition helped seal a 3-2 victory for the U.S. team, she and Melanie Oudin, currently ranked No. 31, would certainly be underdogs against Italy’s more experienced singles tandem of Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone, ranked No. 15 and No. 17 respectively.
Look, it’s not like the U.S. team has multiple options. If Venus and Serena do not make themselves available for the final (they didn’t last year and the team went on to get crushed by Italy), it seems reasonable to keep the roster as it is. But if, by miraculous chance, the sisters are willing and healthy, denying them a spot on the team would be like fighting a war with sling shots when machine guns are readily available.
Not surprisingly, Oudin doesn’t agree with that reasoning. When asked who she thought should play against Italy, her answer was clear: “The people that have gotten us there.”
“I think that is the fairest thing to do,” she went on to say. “You should have enough faith in that team to be able to bring them to the finals.”
Would that be fair? Yes. Would that be smart? No. Oudin’s answer, though undoubtedly stemming from an admirable desire to represent her country, is a bit shortsighted. She lost singles matches to both Pennetta and Schiavone in last year’s final. I would hope she would want Fernandez to send the team most capable of victory.
What people seem to be missing here is that the contribution of Oudin, Mattek-Sands and Huber would by no means be invalidated if that same team did not play for the title. The fight they showed against a formidable Russian team is, after all, the reason the Americans have a chance for the championship in the first place. The relatively small percentage of people who actually pay attention to Fed Cup results aren’t going to forget that.
It’s been ten years since the United States last brought home a Fed Cup title. Mary Joe Fernandez would be wise to do everything in her power to win another one with Venus and Serena before they decide to retire altogether. There’s no shame in that.