Fed Cup by BNP Paribas celebrates a landmark birthday today – it’s 50 years to the day since the first ball was struck in the competition on the outdoor courts of London's Queen’s Club. Sixteen nations took part in the inaugural Federation Cup, with that figure growing rapidly to nearly 100 nations competing in 2013. Lea Pericoli, who featured in the very first Federation Cup and represented Italy for nine years, kicks off the first in a series of blogs on FedCup.com to celebrate the birth of a competition that has played a crucial role in women’s liberation and the emergence of women in sport over the past half century.
Some people remember everything that has happened in their life, especially the dates, but unfortunately that’s not the case for me. I played in the first edition of Fed Cup way back in 1963 at Queen’s Club, but when I arrived in Rimini this February to prepare a speech ahead of Italy’s World Group first round match against USA I was stunned to be reminded of the date of the very first event.
Fifty years have gone by since Silvana Lazzarino and myself played the first round at Queen’s against Billie Jean King and Darlene Hard. That year, Fed Cup was played between 16 nations over the course of one week. Two years later a very motivated Nell Hopman (wife of legendary Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman) decided to spread the competition’s wings and bring Fed Cup to Melbourne, Australia.
The Italian team comprised of myself and Francesca Gordigiani and, knowing English, I was nominated as captain for the trip. I was not close friends with my partner – we had never played doubles and Francesca had the bad habit of not answering the phone! It was very tough to keep in contact with her. In the first round we played against Germany and I was on the centre court against Helga Niessen while Gordigiani was on a secondary court against the German No. 2.
Niessen was stronger than me, but with a 40 degree heat blazing down on Kooyong Stadium at 2pm I felt rather confident. I had been brought up in the highlands of Kenya where the sun is very, very strong and my opponent came from a very civilised German town. Even so, we had a tough battle.
Back then the game had to be continuous – there was no stop at the changeover and no seats on the court. Helga took a 5-3 lead in the first set but when I saved a set point I realised I could win. ‘A real African could not collapse against a pale German girl in this heat’, I thought.
I won the first set and led 4-0 in the second when an exhausted Helga was brought off the court because she could not continue. When I arrived back in the dressing room I was delighted to find that we had beaten Germany as Francesca had won against their No. 2.
Many of the early editions of Fed Cup followed a similar pattern and were played in the same city during the same week, exactly like a tournament. Often people ask me if I would have preferred to have played in this rich and sophisticated era of the game, and for this question I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. I would be happy to be young again, and playing for my country has meant so much to me, whenever I look back and reflect on the memories I feel a deep sense of tenderness.