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Steve Flink: Italians Retain the Cup

11/8/2010 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

A year ago, the United States confronted Italy in the Fed Cup Final on clay at Reggio Calabria, and the Americans were beaten soundly and predictably 4-0. Italy has a formidable one-two punch for singles with Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Penetta, and they were too much for the U.S. women on the red clay at home. But this past weekend, the Americans had a chance to avenge that loss, meeting Italy indoors on hard courts at the San Diego Sports Arena in California.  Effusive crowds turned out to cheer on the players, and Captain Mary Joe Fernandez’s team gave it everything they had. In the end, in an entirely different setting, the result was essentially the same: Italy was just too good. Penetta and Schiavone were far too seasoned and their match playing prowess greatly exceeded that of Coco Vandeweghe, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Melanie Oudin. Italy toppled the U.S. 3-1, and deservedly so.

The 18-year-old Vandeweghe played the opening match for her country against the French Open champion Schiavone, and she competed well. The fundamental problem for the 6’1” American was her lack of mobility and her inability to combat Schiavone from the backcourt. Vandeweghe has what the players like to call a “big game”, but she still is learning to harness all of her considerable power. Moreover, she has the makings of one of the great serves in the women’s game. Her motion is beautiful. She can release heavy kick serves in the Ad court, and she has the capacity to go wide in the Deuce court with a good deal of deception. She can not only serve potently, but she also knows how to disguise her delivery. Two years from now, Vandeweghe’s serve will be a primary source of conversation all across the tennis world; it will carry her into the future with growing conviction.

But this was an awfully difficult assignment she had in San Diego. Facing the wily Schiavone in the opening match, Vandeweghe realized her performance could set the tone for the entire best of five match series between the two nations. She wanted to get her country off to an encouraging start, but her adversary did not allow Vandeweghe to get settled. In the first game of the contest, Vandeweghe bolted to a 30-0 lead, serving an ace down the T on the first point, following with a service winner to the forehand. The American then advanced to 40-30, but she missed her first serve and Schiavone seized control of that point, using a penetrating inside-out return to set up a forehand winner. Perhaps shaken, Vandeweghe served consecutive double faulted to lose that important game.

Schiavone fully exploited that lapse from Vandeweghe. The Italian’s brand of heavy topspin off both sides—along with her impressive backhand slice—was more than Vandeweghe could handle. She held easily for 2-0. Vandeweghe managed to get on the board by holding serve in the third game, but not without stress. Ahead 40-15, Vandeweghe allowed Schiavone back to deuce, but an ace gave her another game point and she held on for 1-2. But Schiavone was feeling largely unthreatened on serve and she quickly moved to 3-1. Vandeweghe had two game points at 1-3, but despite connecting with six first serves in a row at the end of the end of that game, she got broken again. Schiavone closed out that set 6-2 with a love game on serve. In four service games, she conceded only two points.

Vandeweghe was clearly feeling the weight of the occasion. She immediately lost her serve at the start of the second set. At 0-2, Vandeweghe aced her way out of a break point and held on, but she continued missing too many returns and making unforced errors in rally after rally. Schiavone built a 4-2 lead, but Vandeweghe was not ready to concede defeat. She held at love with another ace, and then Schiavone served two double faults and lost her serve. It was 4-4. Vandeweghe at last had a chance to make an impression. She got to 30-15 in the ninth game, but lost three points in a row as her ground game fell into disarray again. Serving for the match in the tenth game, Schiavone held at love. Victory for Italy, 6-2, 6-4.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands—the U.S. No. 1—went up against Penetta in the next match. Mattek-Sands played this match as much as possible on her terms, looking for every opportunity to open up the court with her aggressive inside-out forehand, going for backhand winners down the line, refusing to ever let the percentage oriented Penetta feel too safe. Nonetheless, after a series of marathon games, Penetta found herself ahead 5-1 in the first set. She served for the first set at 5-2 but double faulted at 30-40. Mattek-Sands kept going for the gusto, pounding away relentlessly off both sides, taking the right kinds of risks.

Before she knew it, Mattek-Sands had collected no fewer than five games in a row, and Penetta was quietly yet unmistakably perturbed. At 5-6, 30-30, the Italian double faulted to fall behind set point. She was one point away from a devastating setback, but here her better instincts kicked in. She sent a deep forehand crosscourt approach to the corner, and easily anticipated where Mattek-Sands was going with the passing shot. Penetta was waiting for the backhand volley, and directed it into an empty court for a winner. Penetta wasted three game points, but finally held for 6-6. Although Mattek-Sands led 3-2 in the tie-break, Penetta had her bearings again, winning five of the last six points to take that sequence 7-4. Mattek-Sands lost her range completely, and dropped the set in 83 debilitating minutes.

In the middle of the second set, the American started cramping. Penetta got the break for 3-1 before distractedly gave away the next game, double faulting twice. But Mattek Sands was a depleted figure. She got ice treatment for her leg cramps at the changeovers, but the depth of her intensity had diminished, and her court coverage was decidedly limited. Penetta was a total professional, running out the match 7-6 (4), 6-2 to put Italy in front 2-0.

The high point for the Americans occurred the next day, as Melanie Oudin took the court to play Schiavone. Oudin had been such a refreshing personality in 2009, establishing herself as a competitor to watch carefully after reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon and then surging into the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. Oudin played reasonably well the first half of 2010 but then performed with mediocrity at best across the latter stages of the season. Her match record for the year was 20-23, but in her last 14 tournaments she won only 6 of 20 matches. But with Fernandez recognizing that Mattek-Sands would have been hard pressed to play another long match a day after her cramping episode, the captain wisely replaced Mattek-Sands with Oudin.

Oudin could have felt burdened by knowing that it was up to her to keep the Americans hopes alive, but she cast aside any negative thoughts and treated the moment as nothing less than a good opportunity to end her year on a high note. Oudin played the finest tennis I have seen from her since her spirited campaign at the 2009 U.S. Open. She sparred well with Schiavone from the baseline, and dictated points with calm authority and surprising precision from the outset. Moreover, she took away one of the Italian’s best tactical maneuvers. Schiavone is very adept at slipping into the net unexpectedly behind a deep ground stroke, closing in to cut off any response with a crisp volley. Her instincts and strategic acumen are beyond reproach, and it is a joy to watch her play the all court game with such verve and spontaneity.

But Oudin was in no mood to let Schiavone set the pace of the match. When Schiavone tried to make her delayed approaches from deep in the court, Oudin stymied her with soft and sharply angled backhand slice passing shots, forcing the Italian to dig out low volleys. On top of that, in the baseline exchanges, Oudin prevented Schiavone from getting into her customary comfortable rhythm to set up with her heavy topspin. Oudin drove the ball with excellent pace and remarkable ball control. The American drew first blood, winning an arduous four deuce game to break for a 2-1 lead. Although Oudin lost her serve in the following game—committing three unforced errors—the die had been cast. On this day, under these circumstances, buoyed by the home crowd, Oudin was going to be exceedingly difficult to beat.

The players exchanged breaks again in the fifth and sixth games, leaving the score locked at 3-3. Thereafter, Oudin was utterly in charge, sweeping nine of the last ten games, leaving Schiavone dumbfounded. At 3-3 in the opening set, Oudin gained the crucial break of the set, and then held on for 5-3. Schiavone served to save the set in the ninth game, rallying from 0-40 to 30-40. Down set point for the third time, she pulled a forehand wide off a solid return from Oudin, and the Americans had taken a set for the first time in this Fed Cup Final. Oudin never really looked back. She won the first eleven points of the second set on her way to a 2-0, 40-0 lead, seemed to briefly get too conscious about her chances to break the match wide open as the Italian got back to deuce, but then swiftly regrouped and moved on to 3-0. Schiavone held one last time at love for 1-3, but Oudin swept 12 of the last 16 points to seal the triumph. It was a victory well earned.

With the Italian team lead down to 2-1, Vandeweghe was pitted against Penetta. An apprehensive Penetta double faulted at break point down in the opening game, and then the American built a 40-0 lead on her serve. But with a 2-0 lead in sight, Vandeweghe could not handle the situation. She double faulted away two points in a row, then was guilty of a forehand unforced mistake. Vandeweghe had three more game points, but after six deuces she was broken. It was 1-1, and thereafter Penetta relaxed and played the percentages masterfully, picking apart her awestruck rival. On a run of six straight games, Penetta took the set in commanding fashion. After five deuces, the composed Italian released an ace and a service winner to close out the set.

Penetta bolted in front 2-0 and then 4-2 in the second set. Although her forehand is not struck with a lot of velocity, she keeps rolling the ball deep off that side, daring her opponents to come up with the goods. A streaky and ill at ease Vandeweghe was not up to that task. She needs to work assiduously on her running forehand and her mobility in general; Penetta thoroughly exploited those weaknesses. At 2-4 down in the second set, Vandeweghe was ahead 40-15, but once more her match playing deficiencies were exposed. She double faulted, then punched a backhand volley wide down the line. Penetta sensed the end, and got right to it. She defended brilliantly at deuce before driving a two-handed pass brilliantly down the line for a winner. At break point, she stepped up the pace off her forehand, then came in to put away a bounce smash. Penetta had the insurance break for 5-2, and soon she had the match in hand, winning 6-1, 6-2.

And so, for the third time in a five year span dating back to 2006, the buoyant Italians are the Fed Cup champions of the world.  All through that stretch, Schiavone and Penetta have carried Italy ably to their victories. Schiavone, 30, and Penetta, 28, are a pair of first rate tennis players. They have been selfless Fed Cuppers, rising to the occasion repeatedly for their nation, coming through admirably under all kinds of circumstances. In the end, they were simply too good for an American team that sorely missed both Serena and Venus Williams. The Williams sisters have not played for their country since 2007. It is a tribute to the Americans that they have been in the last two finals without Serena or Venus.

Some might question Mary Joe Fernandez for going with Mattek-Sands at No. 1 and Vandeweghe as the two singles players for the Americans, with Oudin only making an appearance because Mattek-Sands was physically compromised on the second day. A good case could be made that Oudin should have been in the lineup originally. But the view here is that once the Williams sisters were out of the picture, Italy was going to defeat the United States no matter what. Oudin sparkled when given the chance to make a surprise appearance on the last day, but she might not have played such uninhibited tennis had she been chosen to compete from the outset.

The Italian team had chemistry. They had gumption. Above all else, they had experience on their side. Not only were they victorious, but they won with understated style and match playing superiority. The U.S. women need not be ashamed.

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