4/12/2012 2:00:00 PM
U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez’s most vivid memory of playing the competition was not a victory, but a gripping defeat in 1998 when she and Lisa Raymond went down 11-9 in the third set in the fifth and deciding rubber to Spain’s Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Conchita Martinez at Campo Villa Tennis Club in Madrid.
That what Fed Cup should be all about and isn’t always in some parts of the globe: tightly contested, dramatic matches that bring fans out of their seats.
“It was a heartbreaker, but the atmosphere and the environment was so outstanding and that’s something we won’t ever forget,” Fernandez told TennisChannel.com. “We couldn’t hear each other and it was so loud that I couldn’t tell her where I was serving because they going absolutely crazy. To be part of that was pretty special.”
Fernandez, who logged eight years as a player, recalls the U.S.’s final round win over Spain in Atlantic City in 1995 as her most fond memory, as she was on the team with two of her best friends, Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles. “That was the highlight,” she said.
This is an entirely different role for Fernandez, a former three-time Grand Slam finalist and top-5 player who turned 40 last summer. She‘s in her fourth year as captain of the U.S. team, a 17-time titlist that has not won the title since 2000 - the longest US drought since the competition kicked off in 1963.
Fernandez and her girls have experienced some great wins and tough losses. She has not been, as the legendary captain Billie Jean King was, blessed with a slew of standout singles players. In fact, it wasn’t until last month that Serena and Venus Williams, the United States’ two most accomplished players since the retirement of Chris Evert in 1989, decided to begin playing again – in Fernandez’s ninth tie as captain.
That tie was against Belarus and turned out to be an easy victory for U.S. at home. Partly because world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka decided not to play.
Next week, Fernandez will travel to Ukraine for a playoff match to get back into the World Group with Serena, Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens and Liezel Huber. While Fernandez says that Serena’s heart is in the competition and that may the case this season, the fact is that Williams has played all of nine matches in the past 13 years (she is undefeated) and must play Fed Cup this year or she will be ruled ineligible for the Olympics. (Because of her lack of Fed Cup play before the 2012 season, she will still have to appeal to the Olympic Committee for her eligibility.)
But Serena’s presence is not Fernandez’s only concern as it is her task to try and grab W’s with whichever players she has had at her disposal, which at times have not been easy to come by.
She started her captaincy in 2009 in Arizona with a team that consisted of old warhorse Jill Craybas, Huber and the then unknown 17-year-old Melanie Oudin, eight months before she broke out in her amazing "Believe" run to the U.S. Open quarters.
“I went out to watch all the qualifiers, to choose someone, and most of them who were ranked from 100 to 300,” Fernandez recalled. “I took my daughter with me and she said ‘Mom, you have to pick Melanie because she fights so hard. Look at her attitude.’ Melanie came through. We were down 2-1 to Argentina and she was down a break in third, got the crowd into it and won.”
Fernandez has been able to count on veteran doubles expert Huber and the versatile Bethanie Mattek-Sands, but she has also had many young, unproven US players on one of her teams from Oudin, to Alexa Glatch (who amazingly only lost 6 combined games to Iveta Benasova and Petra Kvitova in the US’s win over the Czech Republic in 2009), to Vania King, to Coco Vandeweghe and now to McHale and Stephens.
She sat on the bench while Oudin pulled off heroic wins and also took tough losses against elite players away, watched Vandeweghe mentally let down at home in San Diego in the 2010 finals against Italy, and saw McHale have trouble in Europe but finally show her top- 35 stuff in the win over Belarus.
Fernandez is the charged up captain in one sense, but also a den mother. She not only sees her players during Fed Cup weeks, but as a ESPN analyst, she witnesses their ups and downs on tour.
“It’s hard,” she said. “I feel like they are my kids and you want them do well and you get nervous for them. It was hard to watch Christina not be able to close out her match in Miami (against Petra Cetkovska). You know what she going through. But when you see her beat Kvitova (at Indian Wells) and then Wozniacki last year, that feels incredible.”
What Fernandez can say is that with her steady hands, she has helped all of her young players develop. She’s modest and not going to toot her own horn, but her players speak highly of her and that she even managed to get the team to reach the 2010 final without a contribution from the Williams sisters or another top 30 player is pretty remarkable.
“I hope that I’ve said one thing that they can take away that maybe has helped, but you have to give credit to the coaches who work with them day and day out,” she said. “I hope during Fed Cup weeks I can instill some of my experiences, but at end of day they are the ones who are putting in the work.”
Its not just the kids that Fernandez has to contend with during Fed Cup weeks, its also the knowledgeable, headstrong veterans like Huber, Mattek-Sands, Venus and Serena. In Worcester, Fernandez got to “coach” Serena though two wins, which on the outside did not look that easy as anyone who knows Williams realizes she can be tempermental.
But Fernandez found her open minded and willing to listen even though throughout the weekend, Serena was clearly displeased with her level.
“Its part of the learning, do you like to be told, do you like to be reminded of things, and if I see something, I’m going to point that out. Serena was very open to advice, but there were some changeovers where she didn’t want to talk and I learned that quickly, but she likes bullet points. You learn with each player what they like and you have to make that judgment call as to whether you are going to say something, whether they like it or not.”
Fernandez’s team will be heavily favored against Ukraine, which is without the Bondaranko sisters and doesn’t have a player ranked in the top 100. If the U.S. wins, it will assure of itself a spot in the World Group next year.
So here the rub: will Serena and Venus actually decide to play again in 2013 and give the team a chance to win the Fed Cup again, or will they decide to skip the competition once again and leave Fernandez still trying to mix and match veterans and kids?
That’s a great unknown, but what is known is that Fernandez, while being congenial and mild mannered on the outside, is a very competitive person. What she would really like is to be jumping up and down on the sidelines next year, after leading her team to the title.
“That would be dream come true to be able to win again,” she said. “I try and be calm and not so show my emotions too much and I’ve talked to [Davis Cup captain Jim Courier] about it, and it's so hard. You have goals, but you are used to be out there and having control and of your own destiny. But it’s really rewarding.”
Courier has already established a good reputation as a captain by leading his team to upset wins over Switzerland and France. He has also made his mark by shedding the warm-ups and donning formal suits on the sidelines. Fernandez has knocked them dead in dresses as a TV commentator, but don’t expect her to be affecting a red carpet look while siting courtside in Ukraine.
“I think Jim looks great but I am very comfortable in my USA track suit,” she said.
Matt Cronin is a senior writer for Inside Tennis magazine, and the co-owner of the award winning TennisReporters.net. He writes the Ticker for Tennis.com, contributes regularly to Reuters, and is a radio analyst for all the Grand Slams. He just published the book, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.”