PALERMO, ITALY: It took an extra day but Italy has finally sealed its place in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Final, and with it the right to stage the culmination of the 50th anniversary staging of the premier team competition in women's tennis. But as befits a battle of the last four years' champions, it was a nerve-wracking denouement to the weekend in Palermo.
Having led 2-0 after Saturday's singles, Italy went into the unscheduled third day just 2-1 up after Petra Kvitova's storming victory against Sara Errani on a rain-affected Sunday. For much of the fourth singles between Roberta Vinci and Lucie Safarova, the contest seemed to be following a similar pattern to the Kvitova-Errani match. But Vinci is in the form of her life, and that was probably the factor that saw her across the finishing line, her 62 67 63 win unleashing ecstatic celebrations among the small but vociferous crowd at the Circolo Tennis Palermo.
At 30, Vinci is moving into the prime of her career, as her style of play becomes increasingly like a throwback to a bygone age. She slices most of her backhands, she isn't scared to play the ball short, and she loves coming to the net, especially on the down-the-line sliced backhand approach shot that was the staple of the grasscourt player. And many of the top women's players don't quite know how to deal with it.
While Safarova found some good form in the second set and parts of the third, Vinci's ability to make the ball barely leave the heavy clay after bouncing was a weapon that kept coming back to haunt the Czech lefthander. And it played an important part at the end of the match, Vinci winning with a chopped approach shot that stayed low and forced Safarova to dump her two-hander into the net.
In a match played for the most part in bright sunshine that contrasted with the damp, overcast conditions of Sunday, the sparse crowd again made up in voice for what it lacked in numbers.
Unchangeable travel arrangements and work commitments had reduced the travelling Czech fans to three men and a flag, with the trademark drumbeat absent as the drummer had gone home. But the three remaining fans teamed up with the Czech team bench to make a fair presence, and encouraging cries of 'Lutska, Lutska' kept Safarova's spirits high in those phases of the match where Vinci was outplaying her.
There was just one break in the first set, Vinci taking it to lead 4-2 with a delightful drop shot. She followed it up with her now familiar gesture to the crowd which seems to say 'Come on, fellow Italians, I'm giving everything here, shout for me to keep me going!'
She kept them going with a succession of aces that kept Safarova guessing on every return.
With Vinci leading by a set and 2-0, the third day looked like becoming the shortest in terms of playing time, but Safarova finally got into her stride in the third and fourth games. With Vinci very seldom hitting through her backhand, the option was always there for Safarova to attack to the backhand and come to the net. On break point she finally did so, and while she scuffed the volley, it just about caught the back edge of the baseline, and she was level at 2-2.
When Safarova broke to lead 5-3, the match looked set for a final set. But Vinci saved one set point, Safarova double-faulted on the second, and Vinci broke back. Vinci served for the match at 6-5, but Safarova played a good game, and the set went to the tiebreak.
Although Vinci won the first point with a delightful half-volley drop shot, Safarova won seven of the next eight points, converting her third set point 25 minutes after she'd squandered her second.
Vinci again led early in the final set, but again Safarova came back from 0-2 to 2-2. At times Vinci looked very tired, but she always had more options, and at 4-3 she got the vital break. Having been broken to 15 when serving for the match in the second set, Vinci took her time, and worked her way to 40-15. On her first match point she played another drop shot, Safarova ran it down, Vinci played a lob volley which just landed out. Safarova saved the second too, but after garnering a third match point, the Italian sliced down the line, came into the net, but instead of playing a volley, dropped her racket in relief and delight, having seen Italy through.
The Italians have the right to host the 50th anniversary final. While the weather is just about good enough to play outdoors in the south (the 2009 final was played outdoors in Regio Calabria, which is on the same latitude as Palermo), the chances are the final will take place in Rome or one of the northern metropolises on an indoor clay court. That is up for negotiation between the Italian federation and the ITF, but in its fifth final in eight years with a virtually unchanged team, the Italians will be hard to beat in any venue on any surface.
Captain Corrado Barazzutti (ITA) - 22/04/2013
Captain Petr Pala (CZE) - 22/04/2013
Lucie Safarova (CZE) - 22/04/2013
Roberta Vinci (ITA) - 22/04/2013