CAGLIARI, ITALY—Italy won its fourth Fed Cup title in the past eight years on Sunday on the island of Cagliari when Sara Errani stomped Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova 6-1, 6-1 to give her nation an unassailable 3-0 lead. But while the Russia’s C-minus team was over matched in the final, that was not the case in Italy’s first two Fed Cup victories of the season.
Yes, Errani and Roberta Vinci’s wins over three players ranked outside of the top 135 — Irina Khromacheva, Alexandra Panova and Kleybanova — will not go down in history as great Fed Cup final-round victories, but gutting out two ties on home soil against the United States in February and the Czech Republic in April were worthy and notable wins.
But before Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti could reflect on his team’s year, Errani had to take care of former Top 15 player Kleybanova, who is in the seventh month of her comeback from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Had the match been played on a fast indoor hard-court, Kleybanova — who was subbing for a tired Panova — might have had a real shot, but in the hot sun on slippery clay, she was completely over matched.
All Errani had to do was to put balls back deep, move the taller and substantially slower Russia around, vary her serve and only go for winners when necessary. Kleybanova had to show her that she would not hit herself out of the match and she never did.
The Russian played a reasonable game to hold 1-1 in the first set, but after that, her unforced error count hit warp speed. On occasion, she could hang in backhand crosscourt rallies, but her big forehand was way off, her serve was less than effective, she consistently knocked returns wide and didn't seem to have much of a game plan.
Kleybanova double faulted on break points twice in the first set and lost it when Errani wrong footed her with a hard crosscourt forehand.
The Russian strung together some good aggressive points to hold for 1-2 in the second set, but the last four games saw her commit key errors every time it looked like she might get a toe hold in the match. Errani was totally at ease in closing the match out, caressing a beautifully stop volley off her shoe tops in the final game.
“I was focused on every point, there was tension, there is a lot of people here and it means a lot for us,” Errani said.
Kleybanova admitted that it was too early in her comeback to expect that she could overcome world No. 7 Errani on dirt.
“I can’t say I was playing my best but even if I did it will still be extremely tough to do a lot more,” said Kleybanova, who nailed only eight winners and committed 25 unforced errors. “If I would have played just for myself in a singles tournament, maybe would go for more risk, but it’s tough in Fed Cup. I haven’t played it in a long time and I haven’t played on clay court for long time. Too many things were happening at the same time.”
Kleybanova added that had Panova had converted one of her four match points and upset Vinci on Saturday, maybe Italy would have felt a little pressure on Sunday, but she also said that when she came on court that she also felt pressure because “maybe they were expecting me to pull off a miracle.”
Italy was fortunate enough during Fed Cup’s 50th anniversary year to be able to play all of its three ties at home on outdoor clay, but its opener versus the U.S. in Rimini was dicey as American Varvara Lepchenko upset both Vinci and Errani and the tie went down to the doubles. However, the world No. 1 doubles team of Errani and Vinci were way to good for the flu-ridden Lepchenko and Liezel Huber.
Next up was a semifinal tie in Palermo against the two-time defending champion Czech Republic. Errani and Vinci took opening days wins over Lucie Safarova and Petra Kvitova, but then the 2011 Wimbledon champion took out Errani in three and Vinci was forced to scratch out a three-set victory over Safarova to keep the tie from going to the doubles.
As the tennis universe knows now, the final could have been much more competitive if some of Russia’s Top 11 players showed up, but 2012 Roland Garros champion Maria Sharapova is sidelined with a shoulder injury, Russian No. 2 Maria Kirilenko didn't feel her injured knee could withstand the rigors of the final, and neither did its No. 3 Ekaterina Makarova, who played critical role in Russia’s wins over Japan and the Slovak Republic but is having wrist trouble. Two other Top 26 players who were a big part of this year squad — Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Elena Vesnina — instead chose to play the Tournament of Champions this week in Sofia (as did Kirilenko but she pulled out of the tournament with injury after only four games).
Even though Russia was weak on paper, for Italian captain Barazzutti, the final round victory had to earned. Sometimes getting the “W” is harder than it looks.
“Maybe in this final was very strange one because we didn't play against the best players of Russia, but it was very tough to play in this condition because everyone was waiting for the victory and we had to play very concentrated because we were scared a little," Barazzutti said. "If you see the final, maybe it looks more easy, but the U.S. played better than we expected and we beat the No. 1 team in the world in Czech Republic when Roberta played unbelievable. Sometimes Fed Cup can be easy and sometimes not, but the important thing is to win when you have a chance to win.”