Italy, the defending Fed Cup champion, must guard against the danger of looking past Czech Republic, its Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinal opponent in Rome this weekend, to a possible rematch with either the United States or Russia in November’s final.
Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, Italy’s two singles players, are of course much too experienced to allow that to happen, but they would not be human if they did not take just the tiniest bit of interest in what is happening in Birmingham, Alabama. Pennetta insisted not. “We never see the score of the other match – we see everything at the end when we finish,” she said.
The Italians, who are looking to win the Fed Cup for a third time, beat the Americans 4-0 to win the title last year, but would secretly love to avenge their defeat by the same margin to the Russians in the 2007 Final. Beating them in last year’s semifinal doesn’t taste quite as sweet as it would in the final.
Italians in supreme form
But we are getting ahead of ourselves and Italy first has to deal with the threat of the Czech Republic’s blonde bombshells, against whom they stand three-all in head-to-heads. All of Italy’s victories have come in their last three meetings – post Navratilova and Mandlikova, of course. “I believe our players can beat anyone in the world on a good day and maybe that can be this weekend,” said Petr Pala, Czech Republic’s captain.
It’s enough that this tie is being held on clay, albeit at a damp Foro Italico in Rome, without all of the Italian players coming into it not only with plenty of recent clay court experience but also in the pink of condition on the orange surface: Pennetta won the Marbella tournament a fortnight ago while Schiavone won the Barcelona event last week without dropping a set, beating her Fed Cup teammate Roberta Vinci in the final. And just to top off their all-round supremacy Sara Errani and Vinci won the doubles competition at both tournaments.
“I think the Czech Republic is a good team,” said Schiavone. “It’s the second time they have played the semifinals so they deserve to be here – we deserve, too. The Fed Cup is something different, something special, so you never know what’s going on. I think it’s a big match this one.”
Safarova the one to watch
Had this tie been on hard court it might have been a lot closer to call – Lucie Safarova, the Czech No. 1, has an excellent record against the Italians on the firmer surface, having beaten both Pennetta and Schiavone at the Open Gaz de France in February. But she’s an accomplished clay court player, too, having won three tournaments on the surface in her time although the last was nearly five years ago.
“When she plays good she plays really good,” said Pennetta, who has lost both the matches she has played against Safarova. “I think she’s going to be one of the best players in the next few years because she’s still very young.”
With there being so little to choose between Pennetta and Schiavone – they are ranked 15 and 17 respectively - it made little difference who was drawn to play first, but the fact that the former faces the less experienced Lucie Hradecka (this will be only her second singles rubber) first probably favours the Italians, too. They have never met before.
Schiavone has won both her meetings with Safarova on clay, but lost to her twice on hard. “She’s a big talent,” said Schiavone. “I think it’s time for her to play continually at a higher level. She’s a lefty, I have a good slice, I can play high and [I have] a good volley. She can play faster and run around – we are a good mix.”
The full draw for the weekend is as follows:
Flavia Pennetta (ITA) v Lucie Hradecka (CZE)
Francesca Schiavone (ITA) v Lucie Safarova (CZE)
Flavia Pennetta (ITA) v Lucie Safarova (CZE)
Francesca Schiavone (ITA) v Lucie Hradecka (CZE)
Sara Errani/Roberta Vinci (ITA) v Petra Kvitova/Kveta Peschke (CZE)