Serena Finds Religion

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

If it really is true that "getting there is half the fun," the United States Fed Cup team is going to have a whale of a time in its upcoming tie at the Superior Golf and Spa and Resort in Kharkiv, Ukraine. When Team USA captain Mary Joe Fernandez was asked during a conference call today how the team will actually get to Kharkiv for this upcoming second-round World Group II Playoff tie (April 21-22), she uttered those five precious words that reporters so rarely hear: "That's a really good question!"

Fernandez laughed out loud and explained: "A lot of people have to get through Kiev somehow, but there is one flight a day that goes through Vienna. Most of us are getting to Vienna somehow and then getting over to Kharkiv."

Can you picture Serena Williams riding into Kharkiv in the back of a big cart with wooden wheels, drawn by an ox?

Don't get your shorts all in a bunch, I'm not trying to put down the second-largest city in the Ukraine, which is also the administrative centre of the Kharkiv oblast and surrounding Kharkivskyi Raion (the words mean "province" and "district," respectively). I like the image, though, because Serena is going the extra mile in this one in more ways than one. She's been a Fed Cup refusnik for all but four years of her career, although it has left her with a perfect 9-0 record (6-0 in singles). It appears that Serena is finding Fed Cup religion late in her career. 

Incidentally, Venus is not making the trip, and who can blame her, given the continual battle she fights at age 31 with the auto-immune disease, Sjogren's Syndrome? But Serena is in, and as Fernandez says that the reason behind her decision has nothing to do with qualifying for the upcoming Olympic Games.

The Olympic Committee rules stipulate that in order to be eligible to participate in the Games, a player must have made him or herself "available" to play Davis or Fed Cup in two calendar years prior to the games. The stipulation is so vague that it means even you or I could qualify for Olympic selection (all other things being equal) if, in that 24-month window of time, we simply said, "Hey, coach, I'm willing to go!" 

That's essentially what Venus did when she traveled to Stuttgart in 2011, despite still recovering from injury. She didn't play against the Germans in that 5-0 defeat, a historic World Group playoff match for the U.S. in a bad way. Losing meant that the United States, the most successful nation in Fed Cup history (17 titles), dropped out of the elite World Group for the first time. And that's why the team is presently struggling in the B league, or World Group II.

But keep this in mind: Given how loosely the rules are written, Venus didn't even have to make the trip to satisfy the requirements. If you look it from that angle, you have to appreciate and respect that she went along for the ride.

We know that there's a general tendency among some fans and even pundits to lump the Williams sisters together, as if they were clones who think and act in identical fashion. But the reality here, from all accounts, is that Serena (perhaps Venus as well, but the demands of her illness obfuscate the issue) has come to appreciate the well-documented satisfactions of Fed Cup. That is, she likes the camaraderie and even her role as mentor to an otherwise raw, young team. She'd better, because it's not like there's going to be a lot for her to do in her spare time during the week leading up to the weekend tie in Kharkiv.

This is the second consecutive tie Serena has played, and in all likelihood she'll play two singles matches. You'd almost think she's on some kind of personal mission to get the U.S. back into the World Group. If that's the case, she's just reversing the process that has become so familiar among the male stars, who earn their national team spurs early on, then phase out of the Davis Cup as their careers wane. 

"I have to say, I wasn't sure what to expect in Boston," Fernandez said, looking back on the first-round tie that was played back in February, with Venus and Serena both on the team for the first time since a 2007 World Group battle with Belgium in their backyard, Delray Beach, Fla. "I was very happy and pleased with the chemistry and how much Venus and Serena interacted and helped the rest of the team. From that standpoint I don't have to worry."

Venus played doubles in that one, a 5-0 rout of Belarus (which was missing its top player, world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka). Serena won two singles matches in that tie, and emerged as a true team leader. As Fernandez remarked: "Obviously it's a big bonus to have someone like Serena there, not only in terms of your chances increase tremendously, but the effect she has on the rest of the team, what she brings to the table with motivation, the work ethic, how she talks to the players. I think it really just is priceless. So to be in that environment for someone like Christina (McHale), Jamie (Hampton) or Sloane (Stephens), I think it pushes them. So I'm thrilled to have her again."

Okay. If you want to believe that Fernandez is lying through her teeth and that Serena spent the week in Boston sequestered in a penthouse suite Tweeting and eating bon-bons, I can't do anything for you.

Had the Ukraine's Bondarenko sisters, Alona and Kateryna, been available for this tie, it wouldn't look nearly as one-sided. Still, the Ukranians took full advantage of the rotating host rule and chose outdoor red clay as the playing surface; the weather is likely to be cool to cold. And lest you assume a blowout, Lesia Tsurenko (Ukraine's top player, a 22-year-old ranked No. 110), racked up wins over Fed Cup icon Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani, and Anastasia Rodionova in three of her four most recent singles matches. The most likely No. 2 for Ukraine will be No. 178 Elina Svitolina—a player so off the radar that neither the ITF nor WTA has a portrait to post with her profile.

With McHale, just 19 but already No. 30 and demonstrating that there's no back-up in her,  Stephens improving rapidly, and doubles genius Liezel Huber on board as always (Fernandez says she's become a borderline "mother figure."), this Serena-led squad ought to be playing for the big prize up in the World Group. 

First things first. Wonder if they have valet parking for ox cats in Kharkiv.

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