US advances to Fed Cup final against Italy

BIRMINGHAM: Bethanie Mattek-Sands used a fiery, competitive singles effort to keep the U.S. Fed Cup team alive.

A half-hour later, all she needed was doubles partner Liezel Huber to help dispatch Russia''s Elena Dementieva and Alla Kudryavtseva 6-3, 6-1 in the decisive semifinal victory Sunday.

The reward for Mattek-Sands'' back-to-back singles and doubles wins: The Americans will meet defending champion Italy for the second straight year in the final Nov. 6-7 at an undetermined site in the United States. The U.S. has won a record 17 times, the last coming in 2000.

"It''s an amazing effort," U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez said. "It''s always tough to have to play back-to-back, but the good news is Bethanie is used to it. On a weekly basis, she plays singles and doubles. The tough part is her singles match was a very physical match."

An emotional one, too. Mattek-Sands beat Ekaterina Makarova 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 in the second match Sunday to keep the U.S. title hopes alive in the best-of-five contest. The match was all but over after Mattek-Sands got mad over a fault call on a first serve in the final set. She then double-faulted but responded with a nifty drop shot to go up 4-1, sticking her hands out palms-up and wriggling her fingers to the fans.

It got the crowd and herself fired up. She won the next game at love.

"I was able to get the crowd behind me," Mattek-Sands said. "I think that really helped me and was tough for her. I know that''s her first Fed Cup so why not let her feel the wrath of it, being away.

"I was really pumped. I always want to win, whether it''s playing singles, doubles or charades. I was ready to go."

Sixth-ranked Dementieva''s 7-6 (7-4), 0-6, 6-3 win over Melanie Oudin had put the Russians up 2-1.

Italy advanced to its fourth Fed Cup final in five years with a 5-0 victory over the Czech Republic.

Mattek-Sands became the first American to win consecutive live matches fourth singles and then doubles to close out a Fed Cup tie since the best-of-five format was adopted in 1995.

Fernandez (1996) and Lindsay Davenport (1995) are the only Americans to win two last-day live matches. Mattek-Sands had a hectic 30-minute break between matches, soaking in hot-cold showers, retaping her feet and stretching. She had to finish eating during breaks in her match.

She hit the match-clinching final shot down the line in doubles play. The match only lasted one hour, five minutes.

Makarova had subbed for a struggling Kudryavtseva in the second reverse singles with Russia trying to nail down the win before getting to Huber, the world''s No. 1 doubles player.

Huber and Mattek-Sands also secured a spot in the final with a doubles win over the Czech Republic last year after dropping a set and coming down to a tiebreaker on the second. Huber is 3-0 in decisive Cup doubles matches.

"Before going on the court, I was like, ''Is this real? Is this really coming down to doubles?''" Huber said. "Then I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ''This is why you play and why you work hard.''"

With only three players making the trip, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev had to pair Dementieva and Kudryavtseva for the first time in their careers without the benefit of practicing together.

"It was very hard to go into the doubles match without any practice and play against the No. 1 in doubles," Dementieva said. "We were hoping to win the singles match and not go into the doubles."

The third straight tightly contested match between Oudin and Dementieva put the Americans in a 2-1 hole Sunday.

"I think this match was most important to the semifinals," said Dementieva, 22-5 in Fed Cup singles matches. "I think we both were feeling a lot of pressure."

Oudin, 4-4 in Fed Cup singles, took advantage of Dementieva''s shaky serve to dominate the second set and take a 2-1 lead in the third. Dementieva got her service game going after holding only once in the first two sets, and won a love game to end it. The 18-year-old Oudin''s final shot from the baseline was long.

"I fought as hard as I could, I did the best I could," Oudin said. "Unfortunately, it wasn''t good enough today. She stepped it up at the very end, and that''s why she''s No. 6 in the world. She''s 10 years older that me, and that experience definitely helped her at the end of the match."

Dementieva said her service issues were more a credit to Oudin''s deft returns. Neither player managed to hold serve in the first 10 games, and Dementieva had six double faults.

"Melanie was very aggressive in her return," she said. "She was putting a lot of pressure on my second serve and playing really aggressively on my serve. I was probably not at my best."

Added Oudin: "I don''t think that''s ever happened, that many times at least. She''s got some of the best returns in the game, I think. She put so much pressure on my serve, and then I was returning really well on her serves. It felt almost like we were holding when we were breaking."

The young American and veteran Russian still produced a competitive, 2-hour and 37-minute match.

Oudin defeated Dementieva and three other Russians in a surprising run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year. Dementieva won the rematch in Paris in another three-setter.

This time she shook off Oudin''s nearly flawless play in the second set.

"When she came out for the third set," Oudin said, "it was like the second set never happened. She was ready to go again."