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Steve Flink: American Fed Cup woes

2/10/2014 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

They came to Cleveland for an opening round Fed Cup contest against Italy, hoping they could flourish despite missing both Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens. They competed indoors in front of appreciative audiences trying to spur them on at every opportunity. They were led by Mary Joe Fernandez, a woman who has become increasingly comfortable and insightful as captain. They were a young and determined contingent, delighted to be representing their country, hoping to exploit their talent and enthusiasm and bring victory to the United States.

But the American women were confronted by an Italian team this past weekend that was, ultimately, much too good. The Italians—led by Karen Knapp and Camila Giorgi—were largely in control of their own destiny. Their ball striking was bigger and better than the Americans. Their propensity to dictate points and control the climate of their matches was unmistakable. Their tennis was first class from beginning to end. Italy upended the U.S. 3-1, but they sealed the triumph by securing three singles victories in a row across two days, dropping only one set in the process.

The Italian women started auspiciously with a win in the critical opening singles match of the weekend. Knapp—a 26-year-old ranked 40th in the world— accounted for the enterprising Christina McHale, a 21-year-old who hails from New Jersey and was ranked No. 62 in the world.  Knapp overpowered the guileful McHale 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, pulling away relentlessly in the final set. Yet McHale essentially lost this skirmish in the opening set, when she failed to take advantage of a good many openings. Consider the details of her demise. McHale reached 15-40 with Knapp serving in the first game, but did not convert. After holding at love for 1-1, she had Knapp in another bind at 0-30, but the American dropped the next four points.

Knapp soon had the upper hand in the rallies, controlling the tempo with her explosive flat forehand, out maneuvering McHale skillfully. Knapp got the break for 3-1. In the fifth game, McHale had another break point, but the unwavering Knapp saved it and held on for 4-1. The rest of the set went with serve, with Knapp holding at love in the ninth game to close it out 6-3. But McHale had to be disconcerted by her lost chances; had she been better on the biggest points, the set might have belonged to her.

In the second set, McHale rallied after dropping her serve in the opening game. From 3-3, she took 12 of the last 16 points and three consecutive games to reach one set all. She had regained the momentum and was playing an impressive brand of percentage tennis, picking Knapp apart methodically, raising the level of her own game decidedly. But Knapp made another crucial recovery at the start of the third set. Down 15-40, she served an ace down the T, cracked a forehand winner down the line, and then released a searing inside out forehand winner. Knapp followed with an unstoppable first serve. She had secured four clutch points in a row with brio to hold for 1-0, and never looked back, taking that final set at the cost of only one game. Knapp won deservedly, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. She simply had too much weight of shot for McHale, who gave it her all but could not get the job done.

Next up on the program was the dynamic Madison Keys, who will turn 19 next week. Keys, ranked No. 37 in the world, faced the 22-year-old Giorgi, and the American never really had a chance. Giorgi, ranked No. 84, crushed her adversary 6-2, 6-1 with consummate ease. The key to her triumph was her return of serve. She was uncompromising on her second serve returns especially, stepping into those shots aggressively, driving them deep down the middle, catching Keys constantly on her heels. Keys was rushed into all kinds of mistakes by the speed and precision of Giorgi’s shotmaking. Even more alarming for Keys was her inability to make an impression with her first serve, which is among the most potent in women’s tennis. Giorgi played with clinical efficiency and unbending pride, taking the lead early and never relinquishing it.

Italy thus headed into the final day needing only one more win out of a possible three matches. Fernandez elected to put world No. 46 Allison Riske in the lineup to play Knapp, which made sense. Keys had been overwhelmed the day before by Giorgi, and Riske deserved the opportunity to keep the American hopes alive. Riske seemed ill at ease in the early stages against an experienced and concentrated adversary. Knapp established a 5-1 lead in the first set. She was utterly dominant from the backcourt, keeping Riske almost entirely at bay, taking charge of the rallies ceaselessly. Riske knew her back was to the wall, and fittingly began going for more, taking calculated chances and pulling them off. She broke in the seventh game and then held with an ace for 3-5. At last she had her teeth into the battle.

And yet, Knapp was still in control. Down 0-15 in the ninth game, she collected four points in a row. Riske could not get a return back into play during that span. Set to Italy, 6-3. Knapp took it all up another notch in the second set, moving ahead 4-1 and then 5-2. But Riske stood her ground and refused to surrender. She broke the Italian at love in the eighth game, and held at 15 for 4-5. Knapp tightened up considerably. In the tenth game, she double faulted into the net at 15-15 and then double faulted long at 30-30. Riske broke at 30 for 5-5 with a spectacular, acutely angled backhand crosscourt return winner. Knapp has missed five of six first serves in that game. The tenacious American had come from two breaks down to get back on level terms.

But the American could not maintain that pace. She was broken from deuce in the eleventh game, and Knapp then held at love to close out the account, releasing two unreturnable serves and a pair of flat forehand winners to boot. Knapp prevailed 6-3, 7-5. Italy had defeated the United States by virtue of that victory. The Americans gained some consolation when Keys and Lauren Davis defeated Nastassja Burnett and Alice Matteucci 6-2, 6-3. But the fact remained that Italy had outclassed the Americans in all three singles duels, and had done so away from home.

Be that as it may, I still believe all three American women who were beaten in Cleveland have bright futures. McHale is a very astute match player. To be sure, she did not play the big points as well as she normally does in her loss to Knapp, but this is a tennis player with a good head on her shoulders and a mind that is strong and astute. McHale was also hampered in her efforts against Knapp in the final set by a blister on her hand. But I believe she did not reach a career high of No. 24 in the world (back in August of 2012) by accident. She has a fine forehand, a solid two-handed backhand, reasonably good instincts at the net, and a first serve that is respectable.

McHale tries to seize the initiative off the forehand, and is unafraid to venture forward for point concluding swing volleys. She relies perhaps too much on her excellent defense, but is adding aggression to her game all of the time. The key to her future may well be beefing up her serve. I watched her play Ana Ivanovic last year at the U.S. Open on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the third round, and McHale served for the match in the second set before bowing in three. Against a formidable opponent like Ivanovic, McHale needs to be in the driver’s seat at defining moments and win her share of free points. With hard work over the next few years, she will boost the potency of her game and that would make a world of difference in her results.

Let’s examine Riske. Having observed her remarkable run to the round of 16 at the U.S. Open last year, I consider myself an admirer. She has flexibility in her game and with her tactics. I liked the way she adjusted her return of serve positioning against Knapp the other day. When Knapp became apprehensive in the latter stages of the second set and served those double faults, Riske had something to do with it. She provocatively moved inside the baseline without backing off. She was assertive and unafraid, bold and determined. Riske has a positive attitude and an unwavering spirit.

She can do some terrific things off the ground, and when she is behind in a match her automatic response is to step up the pace and depth of her shots, to play more freely, to take matters into her own hands. I like her baseline game very much, although the forehand seems too mechanical and rigid at times. That was the side that let her down considerably against Knapp, most importantly at 5-5 in the second set when she could not afford to give anything away. But Riske strikes me as a hard worker and a good student of the game. She is also an adept defender, standing up as close as possible to the baseline and taking the ball early. She will inevitably shore things up on that forehand, turn her two-handed backhand into even more of a weapon, add velocity and deception to her first serve and get more bite and depth on her second. I believer Riske could reach the top 20 in the world by next year.

As for Keys, here is a young player with immense potential. Her serve will become one of the best in women’s tennis over the next couple of years. The motion is superb, the fluidity absolutely apparent. Keys will make that serve even more formidable by improving her location.  Giorgi was able to read her direction with no problem when she destroyed the American in their Fed Cup match, but Keys will figure out how to be increasingly deceptive on serve and make it more untouchable. Her ground game can be erratic off both sides but she can also produce winners from any part of the court. She is a big hitter.

Of the trio who performed for the United States in singles against Italy, Madison Keys has the largest potential. There is no reason why she should not be among the ten best in the world by the latter stages of the 2015 season. The only thing that could prevent from Keys from realizing her vast potential is too much attention. She must resist the impulse to take her press clippings too seriously, and keep her nose to the grindstone. In a couple of years, when Serena Williams might be beginning to decline, the guess here is that Madison Keys will be up there with Sloane Stephens as residents of the world’s top ten. I would not be the least bit surprised if Keys wins a major in 2016 or 2017.

Meanwhile, there are other American women who remain in the elite top 50. Jamie Hampton is stationed at No. 31 and the 24-year-old has bona-fide top 20 potential. Bethanie Mattek-Sands is No. 42 in the world and she should remain in that territory for a few more years. And Venus Williams is still ranked at No. 48 despite all of her health woes.

Notwithstanding the setback in Cleveland, the American women’s game is in better shape than has been the case for a long while. Serena Williams—struggling at the moment with a lingering back injury—is still far and away the best player in the world of women’s tennis. Stephens is No. 16, and regardless of another disappointing loss today in Doha, she will be in the top ten by the end of 2014. Riske and McHale will make their presence known, and Keys is headed inexorably toward the upper levels of the game. In the final analysis, even if the Fed Cup loss to Italy was devastating in some ways, women’s tennis in the United States is not faring badly at all.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.