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Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Another Fed Cup feast for Mattek-Sands?

She's sassy. She's smart. She shops with an eye for far-out fashion and drinks Starbucks and Courvoisier. And despite a dedication to fitness and gym, an occasional Krispy Kreme donut still passes beyond her lips.

She's Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and in American women's tennis, she ranks next in line behind Serena and Venus Williams, ranked fourth and fifth in the world. That still leaves the 25-year-old at No. 58, more than 50 ranking spots lower than the Grand Slam winning sisters.

But never mind about rankings.

This coming weekend in San Diego, when the U.S. meets defending champion Italy in the Fed Cup final for the second consecutive year, Mattek Sands should be leading the team. And it's going to be a hard-working weekend for the outgoing American, who likely will play in three of the five matches.

"I was bummed I couldn't be at the final last year in Italy because I was injured, but I think it's going to be even better being in the U.S. this time, so I'm really pumped," Mattek-Sands said. "I'll be ready to go."

Technically speaking, the U.S. hasn't put its best foot forward in Fed Cup this season without Serena and Venus Williams on board. But Fed Cup perfection isn't always about the best ranking as much as it is about the desire to play. Mattek-Sands, No. 67 Melanie Oudin and doubles impresario Liezel Huber have proven that fact all year long.

"Everybody is getting psyched," Mattek-Sands said. "Fed Cup is a good time. It's a different vibe being [at] a team event. It's really cool."

Mattek-Sands is a go-for-broke personality, on and off the court. She approaches life with carefree abandon, a desire to make every life experience fun. For a long time, her demeanor and outrageous outfits had critics frowning: Mattek Sands was all show and not much substance. Nowadays, while she might still step on court with tube socks to her knees and a bit of mischief on her mind, she's become a fitter, more focused and determined player.

"To see someone like Bethanie get herself back healthy and in shape, and learning how to play the game, it is just fantastic," U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez said. "As far as Bethanie, I think on a fast court, if she serves well and can find that balance between being aggressive and conservative, she can do really well for us in the final."

During the run up to the final, Mattek-Sands certainly lived up to Fernandez's expectations in showing the fight needed to succeed.

She won both matches she played (one singles and the doubles) to help the U.S. to a 4-1 first-round win on the road versus France.

She followed that performance by becoming the goddess of a narrow 3-2 semifinal victory over Russia in Birmingham, Ala. The U.S. was trailing 2-1 when Mattek-Sands stepped up to bring home a dramatic 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 win over Ekaterina Makarova to even the score. She then teamed with Huber to win the decisive doubles point 6-3, 6-1 to move Team USA into a second consecutive final against Italy.

"It just kind of fell upon me," Mattek-Sands said of her semifinal heroine role. "I'm just there to win for the team and do my best. And it just so happened I was the second singles on that day. I had to win the singles, and then the doubles, to clinch it. For me, it was probably one of the best experiences of my career, and I'll take that going into this match against Italy."

The reigning Fed Cup champions will be a tough challenge for Mattek-Sands & Co. this weekend. The Italians are a cohesive team, and all four of their players rank in the top 45 in singles. Reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Penetta are expected to play singles, and Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci will pair for doubles.

Mattek-Sands never faced Schiavone in singles and hasn't fared well against Flavia Penetta, winning only one of five matches they've played.

"We have to be ready for a battle," said Mattek-Sands, hoping playing at home will be an advantage. "They're a strong team, but I like we're the underdogs because I like challenges."

The U.S. used to dominate the Fed Cup competition, and it continues to hold a record 17 titles. But surprisingly, if the Americans pull out a win this weekend, it will be their first in a decade.

One thing is for sure, win or lose, you can count on Mattek-Sands to bring her flamboyance to the final. "I love playing Fed Cup," she said. "Fed Cup is one of the highlights of my career."