Italy finished the opening day of its Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinal against Czech Republic in Rome 2-0 ahead, which was predictable enough, but the scoreline doesn’t tell half the story.
The Italian No. 1 Flavia Pennetta was expected to win her match easily – and she didn’t - while the No. 2 Francesca Schiavone was expected to be pushed all the way – and she wasn’t. The defending champions may be going into the second day needing just a point to confirm their place in the Final against either the United States or Russia, but they will know they have been in a fight if it is anything like the first day.
In fact, for much of the first set in the opening rubber between Pennetta and Lucie Hradecka one expected a major surprise as the Czech No. 2 made a nonsense of the 59-place discrepancy in their rankings. The fact that it was on clay made it even more surprising. In each set Hradecka raced into a 4-1 lead only to end up losing 64 75. She must have felt like a tourist who had been pick-pocketed.
Hradecka launches surprise attack
Nothing that happened in Marbella a fortnight ago when Pennetta collected her first title of the year will have prepared her for what she was to face here at the Stadio Nicola Pietrangeli. Perhaps the rain that had been falling for 24 hours and throughout the first set seeped into her spirit. More likely it was the outrageously good attacking game of her young opponent that unhinged her.
There was absolutely no clue in Hradecka’s record to suggest that she was capable of such a performance. She had lost in the opening round of the last eight tournaments she had played at tour level. “When I play tournaments I play good, but I cannot win so I hope the next match will be the same condition but with a good finish,” she commented.
With a two-fisted attack on both flanks she broke Pennetta as early as the second game. Pennetta broke straight back but two poorly executed drop shots in the fourth game saw the Italian broken again. It wasn’t until she was 4-2 down that she began to play like someone who has reached two Grand Slam quarterfinals. Two unfortunately timed double faults in the ninth game put Pennetta ahead for the first time and then a first serve that looked long helped to take the set.
Sun shines for brilliant Schiavone
If Pennetta thought the worst was behind her she was in for a surprise as Hradecka again raced ahead in the second set. But the Czech girl was having trouble with her ball toss and another double fault saw her lead cut to 4-3, whereupon she whacked both her thighs with her racquet in anger. When she held in a game of six deuces to take a 5-4 lead a third set looked in the offing, but like all good players Pennetta found a way to win just as the sun came out.
“I’m a little bit sad,” said Hradecka, “because the match was so close, I was so close to winning. Everything I did was my mistake. The double faults were a big mistake.”
Schiavone had stood 2-2 in head-to-heads with Safarova and though this was on her preferred surface she must have been surprised how easily she won, but she was beautifully in tune with her game. Once when a deftly played backhand slice left her opponent hopelessly beaten she gave a little jig and then spun the racquet around and strummed the strings. Safarova was never for a moment in contention, losing 60 62.
“We followed all the tactics and now enjoy this beautiful point,” said an ecstatic Schiavone.