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The United States’ Fed Cup tie against Italy may be short on star power, but Karin Knapp brought plenty of firepower to the proceedings. Controlling the center of the court and taking charge of key rallies with a formidable serve-forehand combination, Knapp defeated Christina McHale, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 to give Italy a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five match tie in Cleveland.

Both nations are missing marquee players: World No. 1 Serena Williams is sidelined with a back injury and 18th-ranked Sloane Stephens is out for a wrist injury for the Americans, while three starters from Italy’s 2013 Fed Cup championship squad — Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta — opted out for the visitors.

World No. 60 McHale is the lowest-ranked player on the team, but her credentials as the only American with prior Fed Cup experience  — and a 1-0 record over Knapp — earned her the start and she threatened immediately as the 40th-ranked Knapp saved a pair of break points to hold in the opener. Both women favor the forehand and both tried to target the opponent’s backhand in early exchanges. Knapp cracked a crosscourt forehand winner for triple break point in the fourth game and when McHale missed on a wild down the line backhand, the Italian had the break and a 3-1 lead. McHale withstood two break points holding for 4-2, but Knapp responded banging an inside-out forehand winner to hold at love for 5-2. The 5’11” Italian spotted her first serve effectively to set up the first strike with her forehand. Knapp won 11 consecutive points on serve in sealing the opening set in 51 minutes.

U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez urged McHale on during the changeover, shoving her hands forward like a woman trying to slam shut a door in the face of a gusting wind, as if imploring McHale to hold her ground on the baseline. But the weight and depth of Knapp’s forehand continued to push the American back. The opening game of the second set escalated into the longest of the match, ending with McHale sailing successive forehands as Knapp broke for a 1-0 advantage. The Teaneck, N.J. native is a quicker mover and she began applying that edge hitting sharper angles and working the width of the court to draw errors from Knapp’s weaker backhand wing. McHale broke back at love to level, 1-all. Successive love holds stretched McHale’s lead to 4-3 and when Knapp slid a forehand sitter wide, McHale had the break and a 5-3 lead.  A lethargic Knapp sailed a forehand long on the 30th shot of the rally to face set point then netted a backhand as McHale took the second set in 46 minutes.

The crowd eruption had barely subsided when McHale earned double-break point to start the third set, but Knapp, who was the bolder server when it mattered most, banged her fifth ace to save the first break point and crunched a forehand winner to erase the second, eventually holding for 1-0. McHale’s forehand is her best weapon, but she steered a sitter down the line wide then netted a forehand to donate the break and Knapp quickly consolidated for 3-0. McHale took treatment for a blister on her index finger, but couldn’t stop the bleeding as Knapp, continuously taking charge of rallies with her forehand, stretched her lead to 4-0 and never looked back in sealing her first career Fed Cup singles victory in two hours, 14 minutes.

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