When Mary Joe Fernandez takes her potentially all-star line-up to Reggio Calabria next month for the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Final, Italy will be hoping for better fortunes than in its previous nine encounters against the Americans.
USA, the most successful Fed Cup nation with 17 titles to its name, has built up a perfect 9-0 winning record. In fact, the Italians have only notched three rubbers in this head-to-head battle spanning 40 years.
Billie-Jean leads American dream
The two nations first met in 1963 when Billie-Jean King, then playing under her maiden name of Moffitt, inspired her side to a 3-0 triumph in the World Group first round. Three days later, and after further victories over Netherlands, Great Britain and Australia, USA became the inaugural Fed Cup champions.
In those early days, the competition took place at one venue - on the grass courts of London’s Queen’s Club in 1963 - with the 16 competing countries playing off over four days. In the Final, USA won the decisive doubles rubber to edge past an Australian side that included Margaret Court and Lesley Turner.
Italy and USA faced each other on four more occasions in the ‘60s and ‘70s. However, despite the location changing - the ties were played in Melbourne, Athens, Perth and Frankfurt - the result remained the same. America won each tie 3-0 to maintain its domination over the Italians.
USA enters golden era
It was during this time that the American team was beginning to enter its golden era as King handed the baton over to the next generation. Players such as Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova, all Grand Slam champions, would go on to rewrite history in the competition. During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, USA won the Fed Cup title an unprecedented seven consecutive times breaking numerous other records along the way.
In the mid ‘80s, Italy played against America twice with marginally more success. Both ties were level after the singles although the Italians failed to win the decisive doubles rubber on both occasions.
In the second of these fixtures, a World Group quarterfinal tie in 1986, Italy took a surprise 1-0 lead when Sandra Cecchini ended Evert’s unbeaten record in Fed Cup singles play, a winning streak that had spanned 29 matches. However, Navratilova led the American fight back by winning the second singles rubber and then teaming up with Pam Shriver to clinch the doubles.
Navratilova’s remarkable Fed Cup career saw her compile a 40-1 winning record. Incidentally, her solitary loss, a three-set doubles defeat with Jill Craybas against Austria in 2004, came at the modest age of 47, almost 30 years after she made her debut for Czechoslovakia.
Home or away
By the time Italy and USA next faced each other in the World Group semifinals in 1999, the home-and-away rule had been adopted. With Italy having the choice of venue, then-captain Raffaella Reggi elected to play the tie on red clay in Ancona and was probably confident that home advantage would give her side a realistic chance of victory.
However, it turned out to be false hope as, unfortunately for the Italians, a certain pair of sisters decided that this would be the right time to make their Fed Cup debuts. Venus and Serena Williams were in impeccable form and, along with Monica Seles and then Lindsay Davenport, teamed up to overcome Italy 4-1 before defeating Russia by the same score line in the Final.
Four years later, this time in the World Group quarterfinals, USA had home advantage against Italy in the most recent meeting between the two nations. Playing on a hard court in Washington, the tie followed a familiar pattern as the Americans, who were without any ‘star’ names, recorded a 5-0 win.
Will history repeat itself?
Despite the one-sided history of this fixture, Italy will be more confident than ever of notching its first victory against USA. The Italians have reached the Final three times since 2006 when they won their first and only Fed Cup title, beating Belgium 3-2 after a dramatic deciding doubles rubber.
Italy is now spearheaded by Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone with added support coming from Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. Pennetta, 27, has enjoyed the best form of her career in 2009 after winning back-to-back titles this summer and reaching a career high world ranking of No. 10.
USA, meanwhile, will be hoping to call on the services of the Williams sisters although the emergence of talented teenager Melanie Oudin, alongside doubles specialists Liezel Huber and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, means the Americans will have more than a fighting chance of continuing their perfect record against Italy.