Huge opportunity for U.S. Fed Cup

This weekend's Fed Cup semifinal pitting Russia against the United States features two tennis powers, one old, one relatively new. Seven of the last nine Grand Slam event winners have come from these two countries. Yet for all their talent, both nations are finding it challenging these days to get their most dangerous players to show up.

U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez named three of four players last week and held a spot open if either of the Williams sisters -- No. 4 Venus is far more likely than No. 1 Serena, who hasn't played since she won the Australian Open -- elects to make the trip to Birmingham, Ala.

The other Americans have given their word early and often. Melanie Oudin, a career-high No. 31 after reaching the quarterfinals of back-to-back U.S. green-clay events, has given Fernandez a standing commitment, as has the world No.1 doubles player, Liezel Huber. They'll be joined by the versatile Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who can play either singles or doubles.

Russia has 11 players in the WTA top 50 and three in the top 10. But No. 3 Dinara Safina is also hurt and No. 5 Svetlana Kuznetsova, the defending French Open champion, announced early that she was not interested in returning to the U.S. for a hard-court event early in the clay-court season. Fernandez's counterpart, Shamil Tarpischev, persuaded No. 6 Elena Dementieva to lead the team, which also includes former world junior champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, No. 62 Ekaterina Makarova and No. 78 Alla Kudryavtseva (average age: 20).

The matches that will unfold Saturday and Sunday represent a huge opportunity for the U.S. team, which could clinch its first home final in the annual competition since 2000, which was also the last time the Americans won the title. Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Lisa Raymond swept Spain that year in Las Vegas. The U.S. played for the championship in 2003 and again last year.

Under the current home-and-away format, it doesn't matter whether reigning champion Italy or the Czech Republic wins the other semifinal. The U.S. team played both of those countries on the road last year and thus would get its pick of site and surface in a potential final the first week of November.

"So motivational,'' said Fernandez, who's also an ESPN analyst.

Oudin, the 18-year-old who ascended swiftly up the rankings last year thanks in part to stellar play at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, is the literal poster girl for the Fed Cup semi. That's fitting, since Oudin will be playing fairly close to her home in Marietta, Ga., and because she took on Russia all by herself at the year's final Grand Slam in New York last summer. Oudin beat Pavlyuchenkova, Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, and Nadia Petrova last year before falling to Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals.

"She's a great team player -- she personifies what team competition is all about,'' Fernandez said. "You've seen her attitude when she's on her own. Imagine when she's part of a team, it comes out that much more. Think about just 12 months ago, I had her on the team for the first time. I'd just seen her play in the qualis at Australia. So huge, how much she's improved.''

Huber, a South African-born naturalized citizen married to an American, her husband-coach Tony, is another Fed Cup stalwart who "loves pressure and proves that on a daily basis,'' Fernandez said. Huber and Mattek-Sands came back from match point down last year against the Czech Republic in the decisive doubles match (unlike Davis Cup, the doubles is played last).

"She works harder and harder every time we have her on the team, and the younger girls see that,'' Fernandez said. "She whips their butt. She's out there doing the two-on-one [drills] as if she were a singles player and doing her gym work afterward.'' Huber also has the ability to make doubles chemistry work with anyone, a must in this ad-libbed competition.

Fernandez said she has made an effort to tailor the medium-fast indoor surface to Oudin, hard enough for her to inflict damage but not so speedy that it would allow a power player to steamroll her.

The U.S. Fed Cup team has won twice on the road in the past year without either Williams sister in attendance. Some captains might find it maddening to be kept waiting as Fernandez has been and opt to stick with the players who are clearly eager to be there -- especially after the final against Italy last year, when Serena Williams at first said she would play, then withdrew after winning the WTA year-end championships.

But Fernandez's mantra is that she wants to rebuild and win at the same time, and the Williams sisters obviously boost the chances of winning on any given weekend. The captain insists that she has good communication with both Venus and Serena and takes what they say about wanting to play at face value.

"If Venus and Serena play, it's a bonus,'' Fernandez said. "I think it would help, obviously, tremendously inspire the younger generation, but I really feel like I'm trying to find that new next generation like [Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe] did.

"You can't count out the best player in the world. If the best player in the world is willing to play, you've got to have her on. A lot of people are like, 'Why would you go there again?' But I keep trying, I persevere.

"I understand they're at a different stage of their careers, and it's not a priority.

Because it was so big for me, I wish everyone had the same feelings about Fed Cup and team competition that I did, but I know that's not possible. I don't fault them for that. I think they've been pretty honest with me.''

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