Fun, fruitful weekend for U.S. team

KHARKIV, Ukraine -- It's been a successful year under less-than-ideal circumstances for the Americans in Fed Cup competition.

The United States -- the winningest nation in Fed Cup history with 17 titles -- was relegated to the minor leagues in 2012. It was playing in World Group II, which means it wasn't playing to win the Fed Cup trophy. Only countries competing in World Group action are eligible to win.

Being knocked down in the Fed Cup pecking order felt like a slap in the face for a grand nation like the U.S., and everybody rallied to secure a fix so that the Americans could return to where they believe they belong in 2013: the World Group.

If Fed Cup awarded style points on execution, the Americans would win hands down. They played two ties this year and swept both 5-0 -- in the first round against Belarus with home-court advantage in Worcester, Mass., and the World Group playoff against the Ukraine this past weekend in Kharkiv. By winning, they recaptured World Group status for next year, Fed Cup's 50th anniversary.

"It's awesome, and we're all so excited," U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez said. "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."

Despite the success, this past weekend's Fed Cup tie was fraught with uncertainty heading into the competition.

The American squad had no idea what to expect when it headed to Kharkiv, which is not exactly on the tennis road map. It turns out that the Superior Golf & Spa Resort was, in fact, a quite superior place. The entire team took advantage of the offerings: golf carts to tool around in (Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens rode up and down the golf course the first night they arrived), a full range of spa services, an indoor pool, high-quality food and well-appointed rooms.

Williams might not show up all that often for Fed Cup duty, but she was happy she showed up this past weekend.

It's easy to read Williams' mood. If she's content, she's relaxed and funny; if she's discontent, she's removed and fidgety.

Williams enthusiastically participated in all the girl-talk gabfests with fellow teammates. She was dubbed the mischief-maker during the team's nightly games of Taboo and Charades. She doesn't deny going so far as to "make up a word" when it became the best option during one game. She even chose to sit courtside to watch Liezel Huber and Stephens play the final match when the tie was already decided.

"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.

"I was really wishing today [Sunday] was Friday, because I really enjoyed myself here."

Williams was certainly the biggest celebrity to hit these parts, at least for some time. Each day she received the most enthusiastic cheers from the full stadium when the players were introduced. "I can't believe how many fans I have here," said an enthused Williams, who spent a surprising amount of time signing autographs and posing for photos.

Williams was more than willing to let Fernandez coach her during matches. This is the second straight tie Williams played, and she admitted that "the chemistry between Mary and me really grew this week."

After she won the clinching match to put the U.S. ahead 3-0, Williams elaborated on the coach-player relationship.

"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."

We won't know for sure until the time comes, but when Williams left Kharkiv, she said more than once that she plans on playing Fed Cup in 2013. Has she been taken in by the team camaraderie?

It looks like she has, and who knows, maybe next year we'll talking about a World Group championship.