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Preview: U.S. Fed Cup Back in World Group, but Tough Times Ahead

May 7, 2012 10:08 AM
by Rick Vach, ustaflorida.com

Serena Williams
Mark the date of June 6, 2012, on your calendar.

It won't be hard to recognize for tennis fans, as we'll be deep into the second week of the French Open, but for Fed Cup fans the date will be that of a major release -- the U.S.'s first-round opponent for the 2013 Fed Cup competition.

In 2011 the U.S. Fed Cup team, lacking the Williams sisters who were suffering various injuries and ailments, was knocked out of the Fed Cup World Group for the first time ever. It was a shocker for the country that remains the winningest in the Fed Cup competition with 17 titles, also raising the first-ever trophy when the competition was launched in 1963.

But enough of the impressive U.S. resume -- now for the U.S. reality check.

The year 2013 will be a daunting one for the U.S. Fed Cup team. Depending on the health of Serena and Venus Williams, the squad could be favored to take the title in 2013, or without the Williams another first-round victim.

The road will be difficult from the start. Since the U.S. is not in the Top 4 on the International Tennis Federation's (ITF's) Fed Cup Rankings, that means they will open in the 2013 first round against one of the Top 4 seeds -- either the Czech Republic, which this year is appearing in its third straight final behind Wimbledon holder Petra Kvitova; Serbia, which boasts two former No. 1 players in singles, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic; Italy, which is especially difficult on its home clay behind former French Open champ Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta; and traditional powerhouse Russia, which can call on former No. 1 Maria Sharapova, multi-Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, former world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, and on an on into its deep bench.

You get the picture -- any one of these opponents will be a tough draw for the U.S., Williams sisters or no.

Venus Williams will be a question mark for the U.S. as she continues to try and strike a balance between competing on the pro tour and dealing with Sjorgen's syndrome, which she announced she was suffering from at last year's US Open. Among the many symptoms of the disease include feeling fatigued, even without the rigors of professional tennis.

Serena Williams, health willing, should be available, and will be sorely needed, when the U.S. opens against one of the top seeds.

In the meantime the U.S. team can revel in regaining the World Group, and the win in the April World Group Playoffs-round over the Ukraine. The Ukraine squad did not feature a singles player in the Top 100, and the U.S. swept to a 5-0 victory behind the singles play of Serena Williams and Christina McHale.

"It's awesome, and we're all so excited," U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez said of returning to the World Group. "That was our goal this year. It was our first time out of the World Group, and we couldn't wait to get back in, so we were really focusing on getting the job done. We're thrilled to be back."

Serena Williams, whose Fed Cup participation record has been spotty at best, seemed in her element in April, laughing and joking with teammates, and even cheering on the U.S. doubles squad of Liezel Huber and Sloane Stephens in the final match after the tie had already been decided. The younger Williams now says Fed Cup is important to her now and moving into next year.

"I absolutely love this team," Williams said. "I absolutely love Liezel. She's just so amazing and so perfect. Christina's amazing as well, and Sloane and I are like two peas in the pod. And Mary as coach, she's kind of a young coach, and she hasn't been off the tour for too, too long and has so much experience. It's a fabulous opportunity for me, and I absolutely love it."

Williams also said she is enjoys the on-court coaching opportunities with her captain.

"It's good to have Mary Joe out there," Williams said. "I told her at the beginning of the week, 'I want whatever you want. Just tell me. I'm all ears. I'm open to any suggestions. I'm out there to learn.' I feel like I'm a kid learning. I haven't accomplished everything, and it's good to have a coach with different eyes out there."

If the U.S. squad is without Venus in 2013, it will be in dire need of a Serena, who is seemingly willing to commit to the extra weeks of Fed Cup on her 2013 calendar. Likewise the U.S. will continue to need the "next wave" of Americans to keep stepping up. After the rankings drop of one-time U.S. Fed Cup regular Melanie Oudin, that opportunity falls on McHale, Stephens, and the other handful of Americans in the Top 100 who could be called to duty -- Vania King, nationalized American Varvara Lepchenko, Jamie Hampton, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, another one-time team regular before a slate of recent injuries.

Serena Williams said more than once in April that she will be playing Fed Cup in 2013. So keep June 6 circled on your calendar, the date the U.S. learns the seeded opponent it will take on in the first round in Feb. 2013, and the kick-off of a difficult road back to dominance for the U.S. Fed Cup team.






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