Americans take early Fed Cup command as Italy labour

PARIS: Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Melanie Oudin gave the United States a dream start to their Fed Cup World Group first round match against France on Saturday - but holders Italy were finding Ukraine a tough nut to crack.

Mattek-Sands and Oudin both won their singles rubbers to put Mary-Joe Fernandez's 17-time champions firmly in the driving seat in the northern French town of Lievin despite the absence of both Williams sisters.

Mattek-Sands, from Rochester, Minnesota and ranked 140th in the world, saw off 65th-ranked opponent Alice Cornet 7-6 (9/7), 7-5, to achieve her first Fed Cup match win before 53rd-ranked Oudin beat tournament debutante Pauline Parmentier, ranked 104, 6-4, 6-4.

Cornet's loss left her tournament career mark at 0-6 and she blamed pre-match nerves which hung heavy on her throughout her loss to Mattek-Sands.

"I was stressed - too much so, perhaps. And that cost me the match. I wanted to do too well. My stomach was churning up," said a tearful Cornet.

Mattek-Sands said the vociferous French crowd had been quite intimidating at first - but then she used them as inspiration.

"A couple of points I had to pretend everyone was cheering for me," she told Fed Cup radio, adding Fernandez had been urging her to keep her natural aggressivity under control on a slow surface.

"Me and Mary-Joe came to a happy medium," Mattek-Sands laughed.

"I am proud of my players, the matches were very tight," said Fernandez.

"But we still have to get that third point Sunday."

As the Americans showed the depth of their squad the Italians have it all to do after splitting their opening two matches with the Ukrainians in Kharkiv.

The hosts got off to a flier thanks to Alona Bondarenko thrashing Francesca Schiavone 6-1, 6-4 but the Italians rallied as the experienced Flavia Pennetta edged out Alona's younger sister Kateryna 7-5, 6-3.

"After Francesca lost I just could not afford to lose," Swiss-based 27-year-old Pennetta said.

The Italians' 4-0 win in last year's final over the United States for their second victory after 2006 now seems a long time ago as they battle to seal matters on Sunday.

"One-all it's okay," shrugged Italian captain Corrado Barrazutti, who said Sunday's return singles between Alona Bondarenko and Pennetta would be "very, very tough.

"They are two very consistent players. I think this could be the key," Barrazutti told Fed Cup radio.

In Belgrade, Russia are locked at 1-1 with hosts Serbia after Svetlana Kuznetsova hammered home favourite Ana Ivanovic 6-1, 6-4 before Jelena Jankovic overcame a slow start to bring the Serbs level in seeing off Alisa Kleybanova 4-6, 6-4, 6-0.

In the other World Group last eight encounter the Czech Republic were 1-1 with Germany in Brno after Anna-Lena Groenefeld scored a debut 6-2, 6-2 success over Lucie Safarova only for Petra Kvitova to see off Andrea Petkovic 6-4, 6-4 and bring the Czechs level before their home fans.

In World Group II, Spain's Anabel Medina Garrigues levelled her country's first round tie against Australia with a straight sets win, 6-2, 6-3, over Casey Dellacqua here on Saturday.

Australia's world number 11, Samantha Stosur, put the host nation ahead in Adelaide after coming from a set down to defeat Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez 2-6, 6-1, 6-4.

The winner of the tie progresses to a play-off for promotion to the elite World Group, which has not featured Australia since 2003.