PARIS – They made the draws for the 2015 edition of Fed Cup, the women's version of the Davis Cup, Wednesday in Paris.
And Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez's job until February will be to see if she can convince one or both of the Williams sisters to make the long trek to Argentina, the weekend after the Australian Open final, to meet the Argentines in the first round of World Group II.
To get back to World Group I, the Americans will have to go down to Argentina and beat them, then win another match, a playoff tie against one of the first-round losers in World Group I, to get back to the top group.
Here are the complete draws for the World Group I and II ties, to be played Feb. 7-8, 2015. (H) means home-court advantage.
World Group I
 Czech Republic vs. Canada (H)
 Germany (H) vs. Australia
 Italy (H) vs. France
 Russia vs. Poland (H)
World Group II
 Slovak Republic vs. the Netherlands (H)
 Argentina (H) vs. U.S.A.
 Spain vs. Romania (H)
 Switzerland vs. Sweden (H)
The U.S. has won the Fed Cup a whopping 17 times – but not since a three-peat in 1998, 1999 and 2000. This year, the American squad lost badly to Italy in the first round – and not even Italy's multiple Fed-Cup winning, veteran squad of Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone.
The four Italian vets decided to sit this one out (they've been there, done that) and gave the kids, none of whom are nearly as accomplished as they are, a shot. They came thorugh; the team of Christina McHale, Madison Keys, Alison Riske and Lauren Davis (not even Sloane Stephens) went down to the likes of Karin Knapp and Camila Giorgi.
In April, the Americans played a confident French team that included Alizé Cornet and Caroline Garcia (with Stephens and Keys forming a two-woman band). But Stephens lost badly to Garcia and Keys, after a terrific effort in dispatching Cornet, also lost to her.
So, it was a demotion, and a longer road back in 2015.
Without the sisters playing, Fed Cup pretty much becomes an impossible deal for the U.S. – as it would for most tennis nations missing their top players (See: Slovakia and Serbia, both of which were trounced by Canada this year).
And while it's not that they're unpatriotic, the sisters pretty much pick and choose the rare occasions they play to make sure they remain Olympic-eligible. The International Tennis Federation kinda, sorta, would love you to play their showcase women's team event, so they have these somewhat ironclad but sometimes flexible rules about having to play a certain number of times in the years leading up to the Olympics.
Except, of course, if you "make yourself available" but then are suddenly struck down with an ingrown toenail and cannot take part. If you're a big deal and they really want you to play in their Olympic event, they might find a loophole to squeeze you in. Or not.
Venus and Serena first played Fed Cup all the way back in 1999. But in actuality, Serena has played only during five separate years, and Venus seven. Serena, who is 13-0 in Fed Cup play, last participated a year ago when the U.S. played Sweden near her home in Florida, in Delray Beach. Venus, 15-2 in singles and 4-2 in doubles, also played in that tie.
Serena actually went all the way to Kharkiv, Ukraine to play in April, 2012. The Olympic eligibility thing surely played a role in that one.
For the 2016 Games in Rio, which the sisters are seriously intent on playing and may, indeed, be a swan song for their long careers, the ITF has decided to flex its muscles even more. It seems to do that sort of thing wherever it thinks it might have any sort of leverage over players, part of their constant battle for position with the ATP and WTA Tours.
The old rules required players to "make themselves available" for two ties in the two years preceding the Olympics. For Rio, the ITF originally doubled that, requiring players to make themselves available for four ties in the four years leading up to those Games (this was later downgraded to three ties). The Williamses played one tie in 2013, and none in 2014. So the clock is ticking.
One thing is for sure: after the laudable but unsuccessful efforts by the next wave in 2014, they're still needed. Badly. The next wave is not quite ready, although it has potential. And it needs the veteran boost.