- Sandra Harwitt
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For a nation with as rich a tennis culture as the United States, being in the top tier of the Fed Cup competition has always been a given.
No country has been as prolific in Fed Cup as the U.S. The U.S. has won the most Fed Cup titles (17), although its last victory came in 2000. The U.S. won the most consecutive titles at seven (1976-82) and had the longest run of ties won at 37 (1976-83). It also had the longest run of consecutive matches won at 64 (1978-83).
That, however, was the way it was.
This season marks the first time in Fed Cup history that the U.S. squad was relegated to World Group II status. This means the U.S. is not playing to win the 2012 Fed Cup trophy but, rather, playing for the right to rejoin the World Group.
It might seem an injustice that the Americans are not in Fed Cup title contention at the moment, but the truth is that the U.S. underperformed in Fed Cup last year. Germany swept the U.S. 5-0 in the 2011 World Group Playoff round, which resulted in the demotion.
"We were so disappointed last year not to be able to stay in the World Group," U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez said. "Having said that, we approach each tie like we're in the World Group. You just want to win the tie that you have."
That do-or-die attitude is what the U.S. needs to show this weekend when it takes on Ukraine in Kharkiv in the 2012 World Group Playoff competition. Beat the Ukrainians and it's back to the World Group. Lose to the Ukrainians and it's another year of downgrading to the second tier.
Fernandez is convinced that her veteran-youth combo squad -- No. 9 Serena Williams, No. 36 Christina McHale, No. 77 Sloane Stephens and world No. 1 doubles player Liezel Huber -- can get the job done this weekend. Also along for the ride is No. 87 Jamie Hampton.
"It's the first time ever we've dropped out [of the World Group] and we want to get back, we want to contend for the Fed Cup title," said Fernandez, about to pilot her 10th Fed Cup tie in four years as captain. "That's a big goal of the team, particularly this new generation of players that's coming along. They're making big strides. They work well together."
Considering the U.S. has no chance of picking up an 18th Fed Cup trophy this season, its sole aim in Kharkiv is to recapture the glory days. The U.S., which won its World Group II first-round outing against Belarus 5-0 in February, appears to be in position to orchestrate its return to the World Group for 2013.
The good news: The American squad should be capable of overpowering the Ukrainians in this first-time Fed Cup meeting between the nations, even with Ukraine having home-turf advantage. The No. 62-ranked Kateryna Bondarenko -- the star of women's tennis in Ukraine -- made herself "unavailable" for the tie. Her sister, Alona, currently ranked No. 253, is injured and hasn't played all year.
With the Bondarenkos off the table, Ukraine captain Igor Demovskyi has lined up a makeshift team of No. 110 Lesia Tsurenko, No. 171 Elina Svitolina, No. 366 Lyudmyla Kichenok and No. 475 Nadiya Kichenok. With that kind of lineup, even Demovskyi might need his players to wear name tags.
"Yeah, on paper, obviously, we go in as the heavy favorites," Fernandez said. "I was expecting at least one of the Bondarenkos to play, but they're not. I know their No. 1, who I believe won both her matches early in February against Italy, she's quite solid and competes very well. The other ones, to be honest, I don't know a lot about them. We'll have to see what we come up with."
The Ukraine trip, however, does present a few obstacles: weather, surface and facing unfamiliar players -- even if not highly ranked players -- that have to be figured out on the fly.
"We're playing on red clay, outside," Fernandez said. "It's going to be very cold most likely. So there will be challenges. At the same time, we go into it with a lot of belief. We're there to be the ones in charge."
The Americans' sole purpose this coming weekend is simple: Get back to the World Group and start vying for Fed Cup titles again. Anything else is unacceptable.