Lesser Glories

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So, who would you rather be going into the Fed Cup final this weekend: The squad that created history when it became the first team ever to rebound from an 0-2 deficit in a Fed Cup semifinal, or the team whose No. 2 player was the key to a rousing win over the defending champions in the same round on the opposite side of the draw?

Would you rather be the team that is playing a sixth final in 10 years, or the one playing a fifth final in the past eight years? 

The team with that looked dynastic between 2004 and 2008, or the team that barged in to steal that thunder?

Would you rather be Russia, or Italy?

It’s the Russians who came back from the dead in the semis (they reeled off the final three rubbers to beat the Slovak Republic) and are in the finals for the sixth time. Meanwhile, the Italians surprised pundits to become a Fed Cup powerhouse, establishing themselves as the Little Nation that Could. Their latest feat: A win in the previous round over the defending champion Czech Republic. The Italians host Russia this weekend on outdoor red clay in Cagliari, Sardinia, and look like prohibitive favorites. 

The Russians, as has often been the case in recent years, are fielding a B, or C, or E team. Not a single Russian player is ranked higher than No. 136. The likes of Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko, Ekatarina Makarova, Elena Vesnina, and others are all unavailable for various reasons (11 women are ranked ahead of Russia’s highest ranked Fed Cup singles player, Alexandra Panova). A few, including Sharapova, have injury issues. But these days Russian women seem to have mostly indifference issues—for example, even when Sharapova is fit as a fiddle, she’s a Fed Cup refusnik. 

You can lay some of the blame for the weak Russian squad this week on the “Tournament of Champions” (quotation marks intentional), an unconvincing hybrid of exhibition and event currently taking place in Sofia, Bulgaria. Kirilenko, Vesnina, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are all Russians ranked higher than Panova and her Fed Cup teammates, Alisa Kleybanova, Irinia Khromacheva, and Margarita Gasparyan. It’s a long way from No. 18 Kirilenko to No. 315 Gasparyan, but that’s Russia in Fed Cup these days.

This is all too bad, for Sofia spoiled what might have been a compelling final. You have to feel for the Italians, who are in some ways being forced to accept lesser glories than they’ve earned the right to expect. The Italian women have built something wonderful in Europe’s boot, yet they can only beat those who choose to take part in the official women’s international team championships. It’s hard to imagine the Italians losing this final, and it’s equally hard to imagine people around the world getting drawn into their story when the competition is second rate.

Now we’re all familiar with that “on any given day” maxim in sports, but it’s awfully hard to envision this weekend featuring any of those proverbial given days. The Italian squad is anchored by brilliant clay-court expert and WTA No. 7 Sara Errani. The No. 2 singles player is No. 13 Roberta Vinci. Francesca Schiavone, who in some ways is the godmother of this dynasty, is out of the picture now, but her cohort Flavia Pennetta—WTA No. 31 and still going strong despite being the same age as her ranking—is on the squad to play doubles, and the solid substitute is No. 41 Karin Knapp.

The draw broke for the Russians, for it pits Panova (Russia’s No. 1) against Vinci (Italy’s No. 2) in the first rubber. But then the barely-18-year-old Khromacheva will play Errani in the second singles. This is another stunner from Russian team captain Shamil Tarpischev, who loves to roll the dice and play mind games with his opponents. Khromacheva is a promising youngster and a former junior world No. 1. But she’s ranked No. 223 and just last week in Moscow lost in the qualifying to a youngster ranked three rungs below her.

It’s surprising that Tarpischev demoted Alisa Kleybanova, for she’s coming off a great week in Moscow: She scored back-to-back wins over No. 56 Varvara Lepchenko and No. 17 Carla Suarez Navarro. And Kleybanova is the only Russian player who has any history whatsoever with the competition. She’s 0-2 against Vinci, but a surprising 2-2 in matches with Errani. However, those two women have not played since 2010, well before Errani hit her stride and became a different, higher grade of player. 

Furthermore, in the interim Kleybanova fell from her career-high ranking of No. 20 (in February 2011) and missed the second half of 2011 and almost all of 2012 after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She’s played only seven events this year and is still finding her legs and game. I can only imagine that Tarpischev wants to spare Kleybanova for the second day, and perhaps even use her in the doubles if the tie is still live. Of course, Errani and Vinci are the top doubles team in the world, so the futility of Tarpischev’s machinations is obvious. But why not try?

Should Russia manage to steal one of the first two rubbers, and Kleybanova suddenly recapture that lost form, she could keep this tie interesting. But given the home-court advantage of the Italians, their bewitching enthusiasm for, and loyalty to, this competition, and the basic stats and match-ups in play, it’s hard to see anything here but a massacre of the Russians.

Italy may have to settle for lesser glory this weekend, but it will still be glory that will help the Little Nation that Could improve its standing in the record books that the Russians don’t seem to care about anymore.

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