The following is taken from a conference call moderated by Jasmine Sheppard with Mary Jo Fernandez, captain of the U.S. Fed Cup team who will be competing in the World Group playoffs in the Ukraine, April 21-22.
JASMINE SHEPPARD: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today for this media conference call. We have with us U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez who will announce the U.S. team that will compete in the World Group playoffs in the Ukraine April 21st through the 22nd. This tie will mark the fourth time the U.S. has played in the World Group playoff in Fed Cup, and the second time the U.S. is playing on the road for a World Group playoff tie. This will also be the first-ever matchup between the U.S. and Ukraine in Fed Cup competition with the winner advancing to the 2013 World Group and a chance to compete for the Fed Cup title next year. After introductory comments from Mary Joe, we will open up the call for Q&A.
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Thank you, everyone, for getting on the call. Looking forward to Fed Cup in about a week's time this weekend. My team will consist of Serena Williams, Christina McHale, Liezel Huber, Sloane Stephens, and Jamie Hampton will also be coming along. I've had all these players on my teams in the past, we've had good chemistry. Everybody is very determined and eager to get back into the World Group. This is a great opportunity for us. We're looking forward to it. So I'll open it up for questions.
Mary Joe, given our stellar record, never having fallen out of the World Group, how much of that is on your mind and on the minds of the girls as far as you know, and to what degree have you discussed that particular aspect of things: We have to keep the national pride thing up?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: This is my fourth year as captain. Every time we go to, there's a lot of pride on the line. We were so disappointed last year not to be able to stay in the World Group. Having said that, we approach each tie like we're in the World Group. You just want to win the tie that you have. Everybody knows the importance of it. It's the first time ever we've dropped out this year and we want to get back, we want to contend for the Fed Cup title. That's a big goal of the team, particularly this new generation of players. They're making big strides. They work well together. I love the fact they have passion for it. Hopefully, we will be given that opportunity. But obviously this is a big step in getting back to winning a Fed Cup title.
How tough or easy was it to sell this to Serena Williams? Can you tell us about that process.
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Well, I've actually had really good communication with Serena over the last couple years. She's been very honest and forward with me on her situation, whether it's health, injuries, where she wants to play, where she can't play. She really did want to play last year and unfortunately she couldn't play at all most of the season. She told me right when we won in Boston/Worcester that she would be at the next one no matter where it was. When we won, we weren't sure where we were going.
It was nice to get that confirmation and nice to hear that she had a good week and enjoyed the team, really actually contributed quite a bit with the young ones. For me, 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, Jamie or Sloane, I think it pushes them. So I'm thrilled to have her again.
Mary Joe, I don't know the reason why the Bondarenkos (Alona and Kateryna) are not playing, maybe you do, but can you comment on that. Obviously that makes it a pretty huge mismatch on paper.
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Yeah, on paper obviously we go in as the heavy favorites. 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, Lesia Tsurenko. We'll have our work cut out for us with that matchup. The other ones, to be honest, I don't know a lot about them. We'll have to see what we come up with. We're playing on red clay, outside. 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.
Do you have an idea what your singles and doubles lineup is going to be? Could you possibly rest Serena for Sunday?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: I don't really decide till the last minute. Obviously, Serena, if healthy, will play for sure. Right now my number two is Christina McHale. But Sloane and Jamie are all possibilities. We just wait to see how everybody is feeling, what the matchups are. Once I know a little bit more about the other team, we'll go from there. Liezel Huber is coming for doubles. She can play with Serena or she could play with somebody else.
You mentioned you're in your fourth year at Fed Cup. You're an ex-player, commentator. How do you think you have evolved or what have you learned as a captain in your four years at the helm?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: You know, I've learned a lot. I've learned the different personalities, sort of what works, what doesn't work, when you should talk a lot, when you shouldn't. Something I learned from Billie Jean King really, she was my mentor and my guide, she gave me great advice. It takes time. It takes time to get that comfort level with the players and to know them well enough to know when to say something, when to back away a little bit, and what to say. So it's been a big learning curve. But I feel now because I've had a Christina, a Sloane, I've only had Jamie one other time, but I spent time with her at other tournaments, that I'm getting to know them well enough to know that balance. I'm getting to know what chemistry works, what players practice well with each other, things like that that make a big difference when you're together for a week 24/7. It's been fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a player it's one of my best memories. I love I can give back in this regard now as captain.
Mary Joe, logistically, how do you get to this place in Ukraine? Where do you fly through?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: That's a really good question (laughter). It's not so easy to get to. Well, the city we're playing in is called Kharkiv, but the main airport is Kiev. 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.
Do you feel like Serena's heart is really in this or is she doing it just because she wants to play in the Olympics?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: I have to say just from my experience, I don't know if you watched when she played in Boston, but her heart was in it. I mean, she was not happy with the way she was playing. She got very frustrated with herself. Her practices were very intense. So I have to say, you know, her heart's in it. She wants to win. Again, what really stood out for me was how well she interacted with the rest of the team, especially the young ones, how she was a good listener, asked questions, really gave good
advice. As a captain, you know, that made me really happy.
Is Venus not going because of her health?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Venus is not going, no. She just played Miami and Charleston, so she's trying to gauge now her recovery, how much she can play. She's I believe planning on playing a couple of tournaments now before the
Mary Joe, back to Serena again. Her commitment to Fed Cup since she started playing has been marginal. Now she's a veteran player. Do you think it's conceivable she'd actually play beyond this year and take a leadership position on the team?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: I hope so. As captain, you can only hope, right? I think the tough thing for her, maybe for Venus, is the time commitment. I really think they enjoy the team atmosphere. Again, Serena it. She was so good with the rest of the team, practiced really hard, practiced with the young ones. So I think if she can, she will. But it's hard. She's getting older. Scheduling is different. We'll see. Only time will tell. But I'm hoping that she will.
I know you're out there to play to win. Obviously the U.S. has a great tradition, so you want your best players. You've got a lot of good young players, all who have been playing really well at points. Maybe next year would you actually think of just going with the
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: That's what I've been doing my last few years and building and trying to develop the future generation. I think they've come a long way. It's been really nice to see their progress week in and week out. Christina is up to No. 35 in the world. We've had Jamie break into the Top 100. Sloane has broke into the Top 100. Vania King has been playing well, she's in the 50s. I think Melanie is going to come back and be back in the mix. I think we're going to have a lot of young blood. Again, they have good chemistry. They love playing for their country. So it's all good. Looking forward, you almost have to think, Okay, we have to get a doubles team, too. Liezel won't be there forever as the number one player in the world for doubles. But this is what you try to build for. I'm excited just so far at what we've
Can you briefly touch on Sloane and Christina's games on clay. Sloane says she
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: She does.
Christina struggled a bit. Does she have a base where she could become a good
clay court player?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: I think so. Christina hits a heavy enough ball, especially with her forehand. She has a really solid serve with a good kick. I think she could develop into a good clay-courter. Sloane has practiced a lot in Spain through the years. She enjoys it. Her movement is probably a little bit more natural on the clay than Christina, she probably slides a little bit more easily. But they have the games, the base for it. They don't shy away from it. You won't tell, Christina, we're playing on clay, she won't be like, Why? She likes it. I think that's half the battle, the mentality you bring to the surface. So it's all really a good thing. It starts now. Like I said, we're seeing good progress. Christina has had some good wins. Sloane is starting to put it all together, maximize her speed and agility. Jamie is a great athlete and has some big weapons in her game so we've seen her do well. We have a good group that's working hard to get better.
Mary Joe, can you talk a little bit about Liezel and sort of the magnificence of her at 35. Also can you talk a little bit about Lisa Raymond. Have you committed with the two of them to play doubles at the Olympics and is there a thought of Lisa on the Fed Cup team at any point?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Lisa and I go way back. We played doubles together ourselves. Lisa has made herself available every single time. I wish I could bring Lisa and Liezel to play, but I always feel like I need a backup singles player. I'm always joking with both of them they need to practice their singles so they can fill in (laughter). Both of them are very adamant they will not play singles.
If anything happens to one or two, you run that big risk. That's why I haven't had Lisa come so far. But, you know, what they've done in the last going to be almost a year they've started playing with each other is phenomenal. They're veterans, they have the experience. Liezel, I have to say, is such a great team player. She's really almost like the mom on the team. She worries about everybody, makes sure everybody is where they need to be. She's a big asset to my teams. I think I have had her every single tie. I know her well now. She knows me. We know how we operate. She is a crunch-time player. I mean, when it comes time, if it's a deciding match, a big point, there's no one better in that position. She wants the ball. I think that's great for Fed Cup and for what I'm doing. I've thoroughly enjoyed having her and I hope she plays for a little bit longer. You also have to prepare for when she's not there. That's why earlier I said that we've got to work on developing a new young team that can eventually take over.
Have you committed to the two of them playing doubles at the Olympics?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: You know, that is totally out of my hands. I can ask Jasmine. My understanding is if you're in the top 10, you automatically go. So I believe they would be a team.
Is there any secret in your mind to their longevity, being in their 30s, still competing?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: They love the game, they absolutely love what they do. They're very professional. They stay very fit. Liezel, you would be just shocked at how hard she works off the court. I mean, she's such a great example to my young players because she will go out there, practice in the morning, practice in the afternoon, do her gym work, do her sprint work. You look at her and you think she's playing singles, how hard she works. That's part of it. I can say the same thing with Lisa Raymond. She's the ultimate professional and they take it extremely seriously.
Mary Joe, it seems clear that the American tennis world, whether it's broadcasters or tennis promoters, there's kind of this dread of the day when the Williams sisters retire as far as interest in the game. It seems to me that in your role as Fed Cup captain, you've kind of had an early dose of this, dealt with this issue in some way, having to prepare a team both with them in the mix and without them in the mix. Could you talk about how your job has changed when you have them at your disposal and then when you know you don't, what is the change in the landscape and how you go about preparing a team.
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Well, you always go with your best players. You always want what we have, what we're so fortunate to have, is two champions in Serena and Venus. They bring so much, not only with their tennis, but their accomplishments, being role models for everybody else. So that's number one. Obviously having them in Boston, that was my first time. I had Venus last year in Germany come. She couldn't play because she was injured. But it's that aura that they bring that makes a huge impact to the younger generation. It's just something you can't put a price on because it just motivates, inspires anyone to be around that kind of excellence. So when they're on a team, then you prepare as best you can a little bit to their needs, but at the same time you also prepare the team together. You have to make sure that chemistry works, that playing well, practicing well, who fits well together. I have to say, I wasn't sure what to expect in Boston. 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. When you prepare a team without them, you prepare, again, with who you think has the best chance of performing their best and coming away with a victory. I obviously look at ranking. I look at who has been playing well the last few weeks. I look at matchups to determine who I play.
It's been fun. It's been so fun to see. I picked Melanie Oudin for my very first Fed Cup tie after watching her try to qualify in Australia, and have her come through, break through, do as well as she did, it's so nice to see. Same thing can be said for me now with Christina and Sloane and Jamie. I've had a few others, as well. It's just nice to follow their progress. If you can help in any which way, give a bit of advice here or there that could help them, then it's a great learning experience for everybody involved. I guess the most important thing really comes down to their commitment and their desire to work together.
Mary Joe, you alluded to it already, but with everybody on the team especially at the top of her game right now, how much confidence does that give you heading into next week? How nice is it for you to watch them develop, especially since you had Christina on your team as a practice partner a couple years ago, to see her among the top players in the world now?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Yeah, no, it's a little bit of what I just mentioned. It's great to see them develop, to improve, the hard work you see them put in practice, for it to translate into their matches on a weekly basis now. They're maturing, they're growing up. Now they're gaining experience. It's wonderful. And I think it's been so good for all of them to have each other, to really push each other. I think Melanie sort of led the way in that and she inspired the rest of the field. Now they're all kind of right on top of each other, they're all pushing each other. That's what you need. That's what you want. So I'm thrilled. I'm thrilled to see their rise and their progress.
You mentioned Vania King a little bit earlier. Just wondering what the thinking was with her not being on the team. She's ranked higher than Sloane.
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: I asked Vania to be on the team. She has been very sick. She got that bad bug in Indian Wells. She's still trying and not a hundred percent. When I saw her in Miami, had a conversation about playing in Ukraine, she still physically didn't feel a hundred percent and felt she wouldn't be the best choice to go because she feels she needs a little time to recover and build up for the clay court season. She was on my list to take over there.
Christina McHale, it's her third straight Fed Cup. At 19 she's almost a veteran Fed Cup singles player on your team. She probably played as much for you in singles as anyone as captain. Can you talk a little bit more about her progress as a Fed Cup player?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: She's a very hard worker, Christina. She's very coachable. She really takes advice well and tries to put it into practice or into her matches. She's very hard on herself, as well. That's something we work on all the time, you know, to have her be a little bit kinder when she feels she isn't playing her best, didn't make the right choices or the right plays.
But she's rock solid. You know what you're getting with Christina. She's going to give 110%. You know her game, what it consists of. And she's definitely, you know, had to deal with nerves through the first few Fed Cups, and she's learning how to go from there. I think that's all translated over sometimes into her matches because it's a very different experience as these young players find out when you go and play for your team and teammates, it's a different type of pressure. You feel it. You feel it immediately. They all tell you that. It's kind of refreshing that they all realize it. I think it's been a great journey for her. It's given her confidence. I expect her to stay where she is and maybe higher as she continues to be on Fed Cup teams. She's been great to have. Again, you want players like Christina. You are confident in their workability and their desire to win.
Mary Joe, back to Liezel for a quick second. There's been some talk about how the doubles match in Fed Cup is the very last match, and some have talked about they wished it moved up to be like the Davis Cup and be the middle swing match. Do you know if there's been any talk or discussions within the ITF or anywhere about doing that, just your thoughts on that?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: I would love it. I would obviously love for it to count right away, because that's one of our strengths, for sure, is our doubles. I know they've talked about it. They haven't come to any conclusion, unfortunately, about it. But I'm a big proponent of having the doubles count, not just because I have the No. 1 doubles players on my team, but I think it's fun for the crowd. It's exciting. I think it adds a little bit more drama when it's like Davis Cup. But we haven't been able to get there just yet. Fingers crossed it will go there one day.
Mary Joe, probably the last thing you want to talk about at this point, but given especially what you just said about the doubles, how disappointing is it for you that the Davis Cup has had a lot of trouble getting traction, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the Fed Cup seems to lag even behind the Davis Cup in getting traction. I don't know if you have anything new to add to the discussion, but personally how you feel about the event, knowing you love it, what is your feeling about that? Is it possible it will ever gain traction?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: You know, we actually just had a Fed Cup meeting in Miami. This point came up. You know, there's so many ideas out there. Jim Courier has talked about the ideal plan for Davis Cup, maybe incorporate Fed Cup. It works in some countries. In some countries it's so popular, they get sold-out crowds all the time, it's fantastic. In other spots, it doesn't.
We struggle in this country to get the people, to get the understanding of what it really is, to follow it. We can discuss all day about what changes could be made, how to make it better.
But people I think love the concept of having it as a team, and the players like it. But can it be improved? Of course. Just with the dates itself, it's hard, because the calendar is so full, it's hard to find those weeks. We played February, April, wait for the final in November, it's tough to follow. People ask me all the time, When do you play? What happened? So that needs to improve. But the ITF, you know, it's tough for them. I think it's tough with the way it's structured at the moment to change anything. But hopefully there will be changes in the future because I love it. Loved it as a player, now as a captain. I think it could be better and I think it could be more popular with the public.