Monday, November 8, 2010

Fed Cup: What did we learn?

Italy showed why it's the boss of Fed Cup. But what did we learn about the U.S.?

The outcome wasn't surprising, but some of the details of the Fed Cup Final between the United States and Italy were definitely unexpected. Yes, Italy tightened its stranglehold on the trophy for a second consecutive year, and really, you'd have to be a little bit crazy if you didn't see that one coming. The Italian squad, with two former top-ten players in Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, simply had too much experience and too much talent for the younger and far less proven American squad.

But, between the lines, there were some pretty interesting story lines -- especially for the Americans.

Coco? Two months ago, many thought this tie was going to be a heavyweight battle between one or two of the Williams sisters and the Italians. Now, in the events aftermath, we realize that it was really a training ground for some of America's youngest and brightest stars. So, how did they do?

Coco Vandeweghe, the tall and powerful youngster from Rancho Sante Fe, California, was given the nod by U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez, replacing a slumping Melanie Oudin against Francesca Schiavone in the first round. Vandeweghe had scored big wins this summer and fall against Vera Zvonareva and Aravane Rezai, but to expect her to be able to do anything to derail the determined Schiavone in a match as big as this was asking a bit too much.

Predictably, Vandeweghe lost both matches without grabbing a set.

Still, the very promising kid with the athletic pedigree was able to take the proverbial measuring stick to her game -- even though she was beaten and beaten soundly, she can now go back to practice with a higher understanding of the big match dynamic.

Was MJ hoping that her decision would be the spark that set a new career aflame for Vandeweghe? Sure, that was the idea, right? But on the other hand, the fact that the kid endured two shellackings at the hand of superior Italian players can only help her in her development. That which does not kill us can also make us stronger.

Oudin: Perhaps the plan all along was for MJ to snub Melanie in a desperate ploy to finally wake Melanie out of her year-long slumber? Even if it wasn't, it worked.

Melanie scored her first top-ten victory of the year against the indomitable Francesca Schiavone, and she did it by playing inspired tennis and taking it to the Italian. It would be a drastic injustice to not give Melanie the full credit for snatching this win from her higher ranked adversary. She came, she saw, and she conquered, and she deserves credit for the win, and for rising above the obvious disappointment of being left off the day 1 lineup.

Let's not forget that Oudin finished the Fed Cup 2010 campaign at 4-1 this year. Now that she knows that she can be cast off just as quickly as she can be embraced, maybe Melanie will start to take a little more ownership of her career from this point forward.

Venus and Serena: Regardless of the issues with the sisters' health, I can't help feeling just how much of a ship without an anchor the U.S. Fed Cup team is without them. Wouldn't it be nice if the Williams Sisters took a greater interest in mentoring some of America's younger players? They've got such a wealth of knowledge -- so much talent, so much experience -- and it pains me to think that they aren't sharing it with a core of young players who would benefit so much from being taken under their wings.

I just don't get it. I don't know who to blame, or even if there IS ANYONE TO BLAME, but I do know that a tremendous resource (two of the greatest women to ever play the game) is being completely under utilised.

Where do we go from here? The weekend was disappointing for the U.S, but in the scheme of things, the fact that the women have reached two consecutive finals says a lot about the spirit of the younger players on the team. The contributions of Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands were a godsend. Youngsters Christina Mchale and Coco Vandeweghe have stepped in when asked and left their hearts on the court.

From that standpoint, there's not much more you can ask for. Even thought the U.S. has gone a full decade without a title at Fed Cup, the fact remains that the young Americans have built something special over the last two years.

Here's two hoping that they can keep it up.

Viva Italia! Ah, now to the real story of the weekend -- the Italians. They're tremendous and they deserve every ounce of credit that they get. And they are not just about Schiavone and Pennetta (did you know that Roberta Vinci has never lost a Fed Cup doubles tie in 15 tries?).

In winning their third title since 2006 they have once again proven that good team tennis is about more than great players -- it's about camaraderie, inspiration, and emotion. The Italians have cornered the market in these three Fed Cup intangibles, and because of this, one of only four nations to have played in every single Fed Cup since the inaugural in 1963 is standing tall again.

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