U.S. Fed Cup leaning on kids again

The queen of the homecoming court will be absent when the United States takes on Italy in the Fed Cup final this weekend, bidding to win the country's first championship since 2000 in an event the U.S. team once dominated.

For a brief few days, it looked as if world No. 1 Serena Williams would make her first Fed Cup appearance in more than two years and the fourth of her career. She declared last month that she'd play unless she were in a wheelchair. Williams certainly looked able-bodied enough as she went undefeated in five matches at the injury-plagued WTA year-end championship tournament, capped by a straight-sets defeat of her sister Venus. Williams thus won her only non-Grand Slam event of 2009 and upped her season prize money earnings to a record $6.5 million.

But even before the lights went out at the gala in Doha, Qatar, Williams informed first-year U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez that she felt too beat-up to make the trip to Reggio Calabria, Italy, where the two-day, best-of-five Fed Cup final will be held. Monday, Williams reported on her Twitter feed that she was signing copies of her autobiography at the iconic Harrods department store in London. Meanwhile, her replacement, Vania King, scrambled to get a flight to Rome.

Fernandez, the ESPN analyst who was once a Fed Cup stalwart herself, sounded as if she had a little emotional whiplash Saturday after getting the news. "[Williams] e-mailed me,'' Fernandez said. "She said she feels terrible and wishes she could be there, but she feels like she'd be a burden. I'm watching her play now.

"We were so excited that she was going to go, but what can you say? It's the end of the year and everybody's hurt. Billie Jean King always told me that you have to take the people who can go and who want to be there.''

Italy has had such a group for several years. Its two top-20 players, Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone, have played Fed Cup consistently through their careers, including in 2006 when the Italians defeated Belgium for the championship. Doubles specialist Roberta Vinci is 13-0 with various partners since 2001. The utility infielder is 22-year-old Sara Errani.

Fernandez got through the first two rounds this year by putting rackets in the hands of debutantes Melanie Oudin and Alexa Glatch, who won key singles matches against Argentina and the Czech Republic, respectively. That enabled Liezel Huber, half of the WTA's best doubles team with partner Cara Black of Zimbabwe, to take the lead in closing things out in the doubles match that comes fifth and last in the Fed Cup format.

"The kids came through,'' said Billie Jean King, who captained the U.S. team through a golden era when stars like Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and, yes, the Williams sisters made themselves available. "This is the first time we've had a chance to put together a team with two or three [players] the same age. We've always had No. 1s, but we never had that.''

South African-born Huber, 33, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who still cries when she hears the national anthem of her adopted country on court; she'll play Fed Cup until she's in a wheelchair. But any or all of the other three women could figure into the future nucleus of the team. Oudin is 18, Glatch and King are 20. Oudin went deep in two Slams this season. Glatch showed unusual moxie on clay -- the Fed Cup finals surface, by the way -- at the French Open. King, Huber's probable doubles partner, was the mixed doubles finalist (with Brazil's Marcelo Melo) at Roland Garros this year and has won seven career WTA doubles titles.

U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe found himself in a similar situation when he took the helm in 2001. With longtime fixtures Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi increasingly reluctant to commit their time, McEnroe put his poker chips on emerging talent and eventually hit the jackpot. Andy Roddick, James Blake and a revolving supporting cast that included Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri welcomed the chance to compete and -- just as importantly -- loved the camaraderie of the week together. Once the indefatigable Bryan brothers were brought on board, McEnroe was able to go forward with one of the most stable Davis Cup lineups in the world. The chemistry paid off with a title in 2007.

That is the template Fernandez would like to follow in this transitional period for the U.S. women's game. "I'm thrilled with what we've accomplished this year, and I hope we go all the way,'' she said. "Obviously, with Venus and Serena our chances are higher and everybody knows that. But we need to do what Patrick did with the younger men and get players who are excited about playing.''

Fed Cup's relevancy quotient has suffered over the past decade-plus with scheduling and format changes. The competition is even more spread out and shoehorned into the calendar than its sibling competition. It's hard to establish continuity or spark fan interest when the semifinals are in April and the finals in November.

No. 11 Pennetta loses out on possible rankings points, prize money and even a chance to climb back into the year-end top 10 this week, as she would have qualified for the WTA's second-tier championship tournament in Bali but opted to represent Italy instead. Unlike in Davis Cup, Fed Cup players do not receive points for playing, a situation WTA chief Stacey Allaster says she wants to rectify.

Still, anyone intrigued by the way the younger Americans handled themselves in majors this season will have good reason to tune in. Fernandez will dance with the players who got her to the ball, and in the big picture, that may not be such a bad thing.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.