The United States might've lost the Fed Cup final to Italy for a second consecutive year, but Melanie Oudin walked away from San Diego a big winner.
Oudin came into the weekend having been the backbone of the U.S. Fed Cup team the past two years, playing in four of the past five Fed Cup outings with a 4-4 record.
It came a surprise when U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez benched Oudin, at least for the opening day of action, and opted to play teenager and Fed Cup debutante Coco Vandeweghe.
Oudin was left in a do-or-die position when she was released from the sideline Sunday, replacing Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who was suffering from a sinus infection. The U.S. was trailing Italy 2-1 and one loss from elimination.
Oudin amazed even herself with the way she pulled off a 6-3, 6-1 win over Francesca Schiavone, allowing the No. 7 in the world to hold serve only twice in the match.
"I think sometimes that Fed Cup can bring out the best in people, especially when you're playing for your country," said Oudin, who had made headlines when she reached the 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinals. "I think that's what really happened for me today."
So why sideline Oudin?
Fernandez didn't make the decision based on Oudin's lackluster year in which she reached just one semifinal in early February.
She made the judgment call based on "a matchup decision." At No. 67, Oudin's ranking was lower than Mattek-Sands' (No. 58), which means she'd be relegated to being the No. 2 player on the squad. That scenario meant Oudin would face off against Schiavone, the French Open champion, on the opening day. Fernandez simply believed that Vandeweghe's more explosive game would be a better fit against Schiavone than Oudin's grinding baseline style.
Oudin understood Fernandez's decision but admitted her disappointment in not being a first-string player.
"Of course, I felt bad because I had played in every Fed Cup this year," Oudin said. "It kind of stunk not to get to play the first day. But it wasn't my choice. It was Mary Joe's choice, and she felt like that was best for the team. Of course, I'm not going to complain about it. I'm going to say, 'OK, you think it's best for the team, I'm going to be there to support her.'"
As it turned out, Oudin had all the game she needed against Schiavone -- and way more game than the nervous and inexperienced Vandeweghe could deliver.
The choice of Vandeweghe didn't work well. She lost to Schiavone 6-2, 6-4 and then to Flavia Pennetta 6-1, 6-2 on Sunday to end the Americans' hopes of stirring up last-minute trouble for Italy. Mattek-Sands went down to Pennetta 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the second match on Saturday.
"I'm very disappointed in myself and the way that it turned out," Vandeweghe said, wiping away tears. "But I tried my best out there, fought as hard as I could."
Oudin was brilliant as she painted Schiavone into an uncomfortable corner, keeping the Italian from mixing up her game, being able to approach the net and forcing her to hit one more ball than she'd like to on most points.
"Today, I was definitely in the zone," Oudin said. "I mean, beating Francesca, let alone winning 3 and 1, I did not expect that to happen at all. I was definitely on my game today."
In the end, Oudin was the lone shining star. Even her personally designed sneakers were red, white and blue and had an American flag and the words "GO USA" emblazoned on the back.
"For the U.S. she's the story, for sure," said tennis legend Billie Jean King, a former U.S. Fed Cup player and captain who was in San Diego to receive the Award of Excellence from the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Sunday. "From what Mary Joe tells me, Melanie is a great team player. She'll do whatever Mary Joe wants and will do what's good for the team. I imagine it was difficult for her to be sitting out [Saturday], but maybe it helped her win today."
And that's exactly how Oudin analyzed the situation.
Fernandez believes that ending her difficult 2010 sophomore season on such a high note will lift Oudin's prospects for 2011.
"This was a tough season for her," Fernandez acknowledged. "It's hard, expectation all of a sudden is on you, everybody's got the target on your back. I think she's glad the year's finished, so now, hopefully, she can build from this. What a way to finish, beating the French Open champion going into 2011."