USA’s bid to be crowned champion for the first time in ten years got off to the worst possible start on Saturday, as Italy strengthened its grip on the trophy by taking a 2-0 lead at the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Final in San Diego.
Francesca Schiavone gave the visitors the early lead with a 62 64 victory over debutante CoCo Vandeweghe, before Flavia Pennetta defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands 76(4) 62 to put Italy firmly in the driving seat.
Schiavone outclasses young American
It was a spirited and encouraging performance from Vandeweghe in the first rubber, but the gulf in class between Schiavone and the American teenager was evident.
Vandeweghe opened with two aces, just as Liezel Huber had ordered during Friday’s draw, but then two doubles faults saw her drop the first game and the Italian took control.
A further break of serve in the fifth game allowed Schiavone to seal the first set in 34 minutes, and she continued in the same vein at the start of the second, quickly opening up a 2-0 lead.
Vandeweghe rallied to level at 4-4, only for the reigning Roland Garros champion to immediately regain the advantage with another break. One game later and it was all over.
“I was ready for everything today, so it was tough for her,” said Schiavone. “I started really well, particularly the first set. Then I went a little bit down, but the way that I was playing was good. I was aggressive, good defence, a good serve.”
It was a steep learning curve for Vandeweghe, who was playing in her first ever Fed Cup rubber, but it was an experience that will prove valuable in the future.
“She’s Top 10 in the world for a reason,” said the 18 year-old. “She plays well. She competes well. She has variety, lots and lots of variety to her game, different looks. That’s what took me a little bit of time, but it’s all a learning experience.”
Pennetta puts Italy on brink of victory
That result heaped the pressure on Mattek-Sands, who met Pennetta in the second rubber, needing a win to keep the home fans believing that an 18th Fed Cup title for USA was still possible.
Pennetta raced into a 5-1 lead with three breaks of serve, before Mattek-Sands fought back strongly to win four straight games. The American then held a set point in the 12th game, but her higher ranked opponent dug deep to force a tiebreak.
With the score level at 4-4, a couple of untimely errors from Mattek-Sands handed Pennetta the edge, and the Italian capitalised to take the first set.
After exchanging early breaks in the second, Mattek-Sands began to struggle with cramps and received medical treatment at 3-2. The American No. 1 was visibly upset and promptly lost her serve twice.
“I'm really happy because today was not easy,” said Pennetta. “I think I didn't play my best tennis, but I was running and running and fighting, and try to do my best all the time.”
“Sometimes it's not easy to play your best tennis, but when you play for your country, when you have a lot of people outside screaming and cheering for you, it's easy to try to fight until last point.”
USA now has a mountain to climb on Sunday, with even the most optimistic of American fans struggling to see a way back against an Italian team that is bidding to win the title for the third time in five years.
Mattek-Sands will need to recover quickly, as she is scheduled to face Schiavone in the first of the reverse singles rubbers on Sunday – a must-win match for the home team.
If the tie is still alive in the fourth rubber, American captain Mary Joe Fernandez will likely call upon the experience of Melanie Oudin to play Pennetta, but that scenario will first require a titanic effort from Mattek-Sands.
Play gets under way at 1pm on Sunday in San Diego.