Serena's singles success not enough for U.S. in Fed Cup loss

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BRINDISI, Italy—Lecce and Bari trump Brindisi as tourist hotspots in Puglia, but the latter certainly isn’t without its charms. 

Palm trees lining a promenade fronting the Adriatic Sea make for postcard material, and on a warm Saturday evening, families, friends and couples criss-crossed while tucking into scoops of gelato, all the while walking at a leisurely pace to gaze at the mesmeric water.

If ever there was a scene worthy of, ‘Living La Dolce Vita,’ this was it.

A café near to where the Italian team stayed for the Fed Cup series against the United States offered about 30 different varieties of gelato, some of which might have been sampled by Brindisi’s own Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani and company as a treat after another win for the Azzurri

If you’ve lost count—and Italian captain Corrado Barrazzutti did—that’s five series victories in a row over the U.S., and on paper Italy’s task this time around was the most difficult because Serena Williams competed in her second consecutive Fed Cup tie. (Due at least in some part to the Olympic qualifying rules.)

Williams arrived in Brindisi on Thursday and had company: We’re reliably informed that her pooch accompanied the world No. 1.  

Williams can’t shoulder much of the responsibility for the 3-2 loss. Even though she wasn’t the dominant Serena as she made the transition to clay, the bottom line is she won both her singles matches. Struggles against Camila Giorgi on Saturday and Errani on Sunday provided the perk of added drama. 

Williams donated 11 double faults in her two singles encounters, authored mishits that would have hit the roof if there was one, swung and missed at a ball in the doubles and struck volleys that landed in the bottom of the net. 

In the match against Errani, Williams tallied 61 unforced errors. Errani’s ability to track down balls and make the opponent play an extra two or three shots is almost unparalleled on clay, but Williams knew the number was overly high. 

She was candid when asked about how much time she’d had on the clay after Miami. 

“Not much,” Williams said after beating Errani. “Not as much as I normally would have, because normally I would train a few weeks and then go play Madrid. 

“But I could have had this match later on in the year—I could still have it later on in the year. Next time I’ll be really, really ready and know what to expect. 

“I’m playing like I’m on hard court and I’m not. I have to play and be ready to hit 1,000 shots if necessary.”

A small city such as Brindisi doesn’t often get to see an athlete the caliber of Williams in person, and the 4,000 fans that surfaced at the Circolo Tennis Brindisi each day of the series were certainly polite, while predictably rooting for their own. The lone jeers that came Williams’ way was when she thundered an overhead in Pennetta’s direction in the decisive doubles.

Given that Williams hadn’t played doubles in a WTA or Grand Slam event since the U.S. Open and had never met partner Alison Riske prior to last week, the doubles was always destined to get away from the Americans, especially with former doubles No. 1’s Pennetta and Errani the opposition. Sometimes scores aren’t an indication of how close or lopsided contests are, but the 6-0, 6-3 result wasn’t deceptive. 

Williams remains unbeaten in singles this year (apart from the Hopman Cup), but her perfect Fed Cup record evaporated and she suffered her first bagel in doubles since Indian Wells in 1997—her first doubles tournament as a pro. (Lindsay Davenport and Natasha Zvereva inflicted the damage.)     

If Williams wasn’t to blame for the series outcome, then who was? U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez? Were the Italians, who have depth and experience, always going to win playing at home and on clay? 

Fernandez knows the numbers. In her first two years as captain, the U.S. reached the final. (And who did it lose to both times? Italy.) But since the start of 2011, back-to-back series wins have come only against a Belarus squad without Victoria Azarenka and Ukraine, in 2012. Serena, notably, was in attendance on both occasions. 

A wider examination of Fernandez’s captaincy may lead to other conclusions, but besides Williams this weekend, grafters Christina McHale and Lauren Davis offered little—five games in total—against Pennetta and Errani, respectively. 

Fernandez’s hands were tied. Venus pulled out late and Varvara Lepchenko retired in Charleston with a back injury on the eve of the series. 

Which brings us to Madison Keys and the slightly resurgent Sloane Stephens. Fernandez said she spoke with Keys twice about potentially playing, but was turned down. 

“Originally Madison said no about six or seven weeks ago,” said Fernandez, mentioning the injury she carried at the Australian Open.

“Tried to ask her again because now she’s healthy, been playing well, but kind of sticking to her training regimen to try to get ready for the clay-court season and then the Grand Slams,” Fernandez added.  

“With Sloane, talked to her as well, and she had some injuries that she wanted to take care of. It’s a long season ahead, on the clay and the grass. It’s tricky. It’s too bad they weren’t able to come.”  

Stephens seems to just be finding her feet, and being thrust into a tough tie might have been a case of too much too soon. But Keys’ no-show, based on Fernandez’s synopsis, was a disappointment. Remember, the team was named during Charleston—where Keys reached the final—not after it, so fatigue wouldn’t have been a consideration at the time. Here was a chance for Keys to test herself against some of the best dirtballers in the world. Surely that would have aided her clay-court preparation. 

Keys’ coach, Davenport, was a regular in the Fed Cup as a young pro, and the Italian, German, and Czech Fed Cup teams are filled with reliable, highly ranked regulars. Lest we forget that Andy Roddick was an automatic in the Davis Cup for the Americans.

With Williams completing her eligibility requirements for the Olympics next year, her first and last Fed Cup series intertwines with southern Italy. Devoid of the near-automatic wins Serena brings in singles, and especially if the next generation of Americans consistently shun the Fed Cup, teetering between the World Group and the lower rungs of the competition looks set to continue. 

Not exactly a sweet scenario.

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