PARIS (AFP) The absence of the Williams sisters has damaged US hopes of regaining the Fed Cup with a tough semi-final home tie against powerful Russia to negotiate in Birmingham, Alabama this weekend. The other semi-final being played in Rome sees defending champions Italy take on the Czech Republic. With neither Serena or Venus Williams available for the United States due to injuries, US captain Mary Joe Fernandez will look to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who can play singles and doubles, along with 18-year-old Melanie Oudin. Completing the squad is Liezel Huber, who will partner Mattek-Sands in the doubles. The late decision by Venus Williams not to play took many by surprise, notably Mattek-Sands. It kind of threw everyone for a loop, especially me, because I have to be ready for singles and doubles, she said. Its better to know in advance. In my mind I was playing singles (anyway). I joined the Fed Cup team thinking that would be the case because Venus and Serena have been 50-50 the whole way through. Still Mattek-Sands believes she and Oudin can upset the odds and send the Russians crashing out of the competition. Mels a grinder and makes you work for your points, she said. Shell fight for every point and thats an attribute that helps in Fed Cup. The Russians, who have won the title four times since 2004, have had their team selection problems too with Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dinara Safina and Nadia Petrova all unavailable for one reason or another. But such is the strength of depth at the hands of skipper Shamil Tarpischev that he can still field the vastly experienced Elena Dementieva along with promising young bloods Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ekaterina Makarova and Alla Kudryavtseva. Too many of our leading players are injured, Tarpishchev lamented. Sharapova, Safina, Kuznetsova are all injured, while (Vera) Zvonareva and Kleibanova also have health problems. The United States and Russia have played each other seven times before in the Fed Cup and the Americans currently hold a 4-3 edge. The Russians, however, have won the last three encounters with all the wins coming since 2005. Over in Rome, the Italians will once again look to the reliable Flavia Pennetta and Francesco Schiavone to get the job done against the Czech Republic who will depend on Lucie Safarova and Petra Kvitova. The Italians, who beat the United States in last years final, claimed a 4-1 victory over Ukraine in the first round. The Czechs, who have won the Fed Cup five times previously with all the victories coming between 1975 and 1988, clinched a 3-2 win over Germany in the first round in Brno. World Group semi-finals Italy v Czech Republic Rome - Outdoors claycourts United States v Russia Birmingham, Alabama - Indoors hardcourt