| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES United States Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez is banking on home court advantage being a significant factor when her under-strength team take on holders Italy in next week's final in San Diego.
With her top two players Serena and Venus Williams ruled out by injury, Fernandez has chosen Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Coco Vandeweghe and Liezel Huber for the best-of-five match series.
Oudin, Mattek-Sands and Huber, the world's top-ranked doubles player, have been ever-present for the U.S. in Fed Cup play this season while teenager Vandeweghe earned a surprise call-up on Tuesday.
"I am very excited (for us) to be in the final once again and to be at home, that's huge, playing on a surface that the team prefers," Fernandez said on a conference call before announcing her team.
"Last year, being away in Italy and playing on the slow red clay, was definitely more of a challenge. We've played a lot of our ties away and to be able to host the final for the first time in 10 years is quite a thrill."
Under Fernandez's captaincy, the U.S. have reached a second successive final but they were whitewashed 4-0 by Italy in Reggio Calabria last year when the Williams sisters were also absent.
"It's disappointing because the whole team was really looking forward to having both Venus and Serena on the team," Fernandez said. "And being at home, it gives you even more of an advantage. It's tough but you have to deal with it."
Serena pulled out of the Fed Cup final last week after re-injuring her right foot from over-training while Venus was forced to end her season earlier this month due to a nagging knee injury.
Fernandez accepts her team will face a daunting challenge at the San Diego Sports Arena from November 6-7 against Italy, who are in the final for the fourth time in five years.
Italy are expected to be led by French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, the world number six, with 23rd-ranked Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci also in the line-up.
"We're definitely underdogs," said Fernandez. "Their whole team has experience. Schiavone, winning the French Open this year, is playing the best tennis of her career.
"Pennetta, even though her ranking has dropped a bit, knows how to win matches. She's got an all-court game and is in the doubles championship right now in Doha. And Vinci and Errani are tough as well. They really complement each other well."
World number 60 Bethanie Mattek-Sands will be the top-ranked U.S. player in San Diego with Melanie Oudin 68th and 18-year-old Vandeweghe a lowly 115th.
The U.S. lead all nations with 17 Fed Cup titles, the last coming in 2000 when the Americans defeated Spain 5-0.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)