CAGLIARI, ITALY—Can anything really happen in Fed Cup? That's what the players tend to say when asked about the possibilities of upsets or collapses prior to ties.
For the most part, things to tend to go to form as the better players on tour usually win their matches, and while the lesser players can pull off miracles here and there, that is not commonplace.
But drama seems to be a typical component of Fed Cup ties and that’s what occurred in Cagliari on Saturday when Roberta Vinci had to play for 3 hours and 13 minutes and withstand four match points to overcome Russia's Alexandra Panova 5-7, 7-5, 8-6 in the opener.
Italy’s Sara Errani played at a much higher level and dismissed 18-year-old lefthander Irina Khromacheva 6-1 6-4 to give Italy a 2-0 lead over Russia in the Fed Cup final.
Playing at home and boasting two fine clay courters in Vinci and Errani, Italy was a heavy favorite coming into the tie as Russia was missing its top 11 players.
Yet Vinci nearly unraveled, which would have made the weekend a whole lot more dramatic. But that did not come to pass as Panova showed why she's world No. 136 rather than No. 13 when she was less than opportunistic at crunch time.
The Russian could not convert four match points and they weren’t exactly seized from her. It is common practice in tennis journalism to say that the winning player “fought off” match points but in this instance, Panova gave them away.
The 24-year-old Panova — who had only won three WTA level matches this season coming into the tie — was the more powerful and ambitious player the entire contest. Up until the third set, the Italian looked slow, had almost no power on her ball, her backhand slice wasn't biting and her topspin forehand was falling too short.
After losing a sloppy first set. Vinci took a medical time out to have her neck massaged, but it did not seem to make much of difference. The only thing that was really working for her was her drop shot and her volley when she managed to creep up to net, but that wasn't often enough. She needed all of her years of experience to scratch out the victory.
Serving for the match at 5-2 in the second set, Panova flew a forehand well long on her first match point. Just before her second match point, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev stood up, looked at her and pushed his hands in a downward as if to say "calm down." Panova could not. On her second match point, she pushed a forehand which Vinci buried for a winner. Then she dumped an easy backhand into the net on her third match point. Vinci eventually broke Panova when the Russian erred on another forehand and the set was essentially gone after that.
Yet Panova turned out to be more resilient than she appeared — at least until she tried to close the match out again. Playing inside the court, she came back from 2-0 down in the third set behind a hard forehand and fairly penetrating two-handed backhand despite suffering cramps early on in the set.
She served for the match once again, this time at 5-4 and seemed in prime position to win when she crushed a beautiful backhand crosscourt pass that had Russian Fed Cup coach Anastasia Myskina leaping to her feet. But holding another match point, Panova ran hard to her left, slid and missed a backhand down the line.
“I didn't even know that was match point,” Panova said afterward.
Vinci broke her to 5-5 with her favored drop shot and lob combination. The Italian began to visibly cramp then, but bolstered by a raucous sold out crowd of 5,000, and a diligent trainer who furiously massed her left leg during changeovers, she hung in there.
Panova did not quickly fade, but a loss appeared inevitable. Serving to stay in the match at 6-7, she doubled faulted at 30-30, but Vinci could not convert her first match point when she was wide on a forehand down the line.
But the wily veteran then caressed what must have been her 20th drop shot of the match, which she followed up with a gorgeous backhand pass crosscourt. On her second match point, Vinci saw Panova charge the net, wind up for a simple backhand swing volley and smack it wide.
“It happens to everyone to lose match points and it makes it harder, but it doesn’t change that its 0-1,” said Panova, who didn't seem to be overly disconsolate by the loss. “She won it because we have different styles: Hers is to make me miss and mine is win points. So I go for it, I miss, and she makes me make mistakes. She took it from me.”
Crying tears of joy afterward, an emotional Vinci hugged every team member in sight.
“It was incredible win for me,” Vinci said. “If I played aggressive I was much better and sometimes if I stayed behind it was difficult. This is fantastic win and I love to play Fed Cup.”
Tarpischev later said how proud he was of both of his inexperienced players for fighting hard and pushing the more experienced Italians. Khromacheva felt she was right there with Errani. Tarpischev hasn't decided whether he will insert Alisa Kleybanova into Sunday’s opening match against Errani.
Despite their losses, Khromacheva and Panova seemed to revel in the experience.
“It was lovely,” Panova said. “It what we want, to play long matches in front of big crowds and entertain people.”