SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta once again proved to be a formidable 1-2 punch against the U.S.
Although they faced different opponents in a different country and on a different surface from last year’s final, their results in the 2010 Fed Cup Final on Day 1 were the same as in 2009. Both players won their singles matches to give Italy a commanding 2-0 advantage over the U.S. in San Diego, as it pursues its second straight Fed Cup crown. Italy defeated the U.S. 4-0 in last year’s final.
Schiavone started the tie for Italy with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over CoCo Vandeweghe, who was making her Fed Cup debut, and Pennetta then held on to defeat Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 7-6 (4), 6-2.
Mattek-Sands, ranked No. 58 in the world, once again tried to be the Fed Cup superhero for the U.S., as she was in the semifinals against Russia, despite suffering from a sinus infection and sore throat.
After falling behind 5-1 in the first set, as her shots started hitting lines and corners that they missed earlier in many of the match’s long rallies, she staged a remarkable comeback against Pennetta to reach 6-5 and held a set point on the Italian’s serve. However, Pennetta was able to save the point and force the set into a tiebreak.
In the tiebreak, both players struggled with errors, and with a chance to go up 3-2, Mattek-Sands narrowly missed a volley into the net. After a Pennetta error, Mattek-Sands then hit two straight shots into the net – including another volley – and a shot wide to give Pennetta a 5-3 lead, and the Italian closed it out at 7-4.
"I think I started making some of the shots that I was missing to go down 5-1. I don't think I was playing badly," Mattek-Sands said of her first set. "I missed a couple key points. They were close shots. I think most of them were the right shots. I just brought them in a little bit, and that’s why I came back. I just went on to the second set."
In the second set, Mattek-Sands and Pennetta traded service breaks to bring the set to 3-2. However, after breaking in the fifth game, Mattek-Sands called for a trainer, as she was cramping in both her calves and her shins – something that is very rare for her but has happened before when she has been sick.
The treatment did not last long, and Mattek-Sands then took the ball to serve with a chance to make it 3-all. However, Pennetta was able to break again and, after going to deuce in the next game, held on for a 5-2 advantage. The trainer then came back out to work on Mattek-Sands’ legs.
From there, Mattek-Sands was not the same, as the cramps were clearly affecting her serve and preventing her from producing much power on her first serves. She saved a break point to bring the game to deuce but hit a shot long to give Pennetta the advantage. Pennetta then took advantage of a slow first serve to crush a return winner down the right line and put her country in a commanding position to win its second straight Fed Cup title.
"Obviously, I started cramping at the beginning of the second set," Mattek-Sands said. "It's a little tough to move around, especially the points Flavia and I were playing. I feel like I was playing well. Definitely had my chances, but it happens."
Pennetta, ranked No. 23, was pleased with her ability to hold on after losing such a large lead.
"I think I starting really good in the beginning," she said. "I was playing more aggressive. In 5-1, I just started to think too much. I started to be really tense. Was not easy to play, to still be aggressive. She started playing really aggressive, push all the ball. Of course, to win that set was very important for me because to be like 5-1 and then one set down is not easy then to stay in the court and fight."
In the opening match, Schiavone, the world No. 7 and 2010 French Open champion, used a solid serve, great topspin and variety to her game to defeat the 18-year-old Vandeweghe.
Schiavone dominated her service games, winning 93 percent of the points on her first serve against the American, ranked No. 114 in the world.
It took Vandeweghe awhile to get used to the variety of shots, including lots of spin, which Schiavone plays with to give herself a chance to break and get back into the match. In the second set, Vandeweghe was seeing the ball much better from the Italian and was able to play at the level she wanted. However, Schiavone was still too much.
"It just took me a little bit more time to kind of find the rhythm on the return-of-serve games more than anything," Vandeweghe said. "But the second set was definitely a lot better played by me. I felt more comfortable with her game and her patterns and the matchup to my game a little bit more. Kind of found a bit more of a rhythm on the return-of-serve games. I was in a lot of the service games, but she was also serving very well. That definitely helped her keep her momentum going.
"I expected her to have the spins, to have the slices, all that stuff. But to find my own rhythm within her repertoire of shots was kind of the key thing in the match," Vandeweghe added.
Schiavone gave her an opening in the second set, when she double faulted for the second time in the game to give Vandeweghe triple break point. Vandeweghe converted when Schiavone hit a shot wide after a rally to bring the set to 4-all.
However, Vandeweghe was unable to capitalize in the next game, as she hit a ball into the net and then had an unlucky shot hit the net and bounce wide to give Schiavone a break point. The Italian was able to convert on the next point when Vandeweghe hit a ball long.
Vandeweghe had some rookie nerves but started off the match just the way she wanted to – using her big serve as a weapon – with aces on consecutive points. Her powerful serve, which can reach over 110 mph, and her heavy groundstrokes are big reasons U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez inserted her into the second singles spot over Melanie Oudin, and they talked about the past way to play and adjust against Schiavone.
"I thought CoCo handled the match very well. She was very nervous before she went out there. She went out and did everything I asked her to do. I think it was a little unlucky not to win that first service game," Fernandez said. "I think that would have calmed her down even more. I think every service game she lost in the first set she had game point. That was tough. She couldn't get into any of Schiavone's service games. But great effort for her in the second set to compete. Schiavone was just too good."
Schiavone credited Vandeweghe’s play but was very happy with how she was able to execute her game plan and use all of her tactics.
"I started really well, particularly the first set. Then I went a little bit down 4-3. But the way that I was playing was good. I was aggressive, good defense, a good serve," Schiavone said. "The rhythm, she could find it if I give her the chance to do it. So I kept going, playing along, and she couldn’t come in. I think she was playing good, a good serve. But I played a solid game. Was not easy today for her, but I think she can play good tennis really because she's strong, power."
Heading into the second day on Sunday, Fernandez will have some decisions to make about her lineup, which depend on Mattek-Sands’ health and whether to insert Oudin into one of the singles matches. Mattek-Sands is scheduled to play first against Schiavone, followed by Vandeweghe against Pennetta and then the doubles rubber of Oudin and Liezel Huber against Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani.
"We'll first have to see how Bethanie is doing. We can have the option for Mel to play first (against Schiavone) or Mel to play against Pennetta," Fernandez said. "I think Mel's game matches well against Pennetta's. Her consistency, her speed. Pennetta doesn't have the ball that can totally outplay Mel. So it's a very big possibility that if we get to that stage that Melanie would probably play.
"Hopefully I’ll come up with a real good (pep talk)," Fernandez added of being down 0-2 heading into Sunday. "Again, it's about not so much the outcome but the process, how you play the game, how you're playing your points, controlling what's in your power. If they do that, that's all I can ask for."