SAN DIEGO, CALIF. — When it comes to pasta, pizza and popes — you gotta think Italy.
But when it comes to dominance in women’s tennis, you might think of little Serbia. Nah, forget it. Or how about those ‘ova’-the-top brigades from Russia? Nope, their troops are slightly stuck in the mud these days. And what about our beloved United States of Williams? Wrong again. Venus and Serena Williams are like a M.A.S.H. unit.
So who ya gonna say? Try Italy.
The long underachieving tennis nation has created quite the under-the-radar dynasty. Put down your vino and check the stats. They’re led by the most dominant Fed Cup player of our era, Francesca Schiavone, who, coming into the Fed Cup Final against then U.S., had won 22 of her last 24 Fed Cup matches. And teammate Flavia Pennetta had won seven straight matches.
Now, after their 3-1 triumph over the Americans, Italians can boast Fed Cup Finals in four of the past five years, winning three times, including a 4-0 win last year on soggy Italian clay, and again in the San Diego Sports Arena over a (“where have all the Williamses gone”) squad.
The American defeat was hardly due to a lack of effort. The Yanks called on animals, plants — everything they could. Clyde the hefty Sea World sea lion determined the order of draw. Ace, the makeshift eagle mascot, stirred up modest crowds, which included an abundance of “Coco-nuts” backing 18-year-old local favorite Coco Vandeweghe.
A big 6-foot-1 powerhitter with an impressive multi-sport pedigree, Vandeweghe has a big future (think top 50). But for the moment, she also has a big ranking — No. 115. And now she faced the biggest challenge of her still-young career. Taking a big gamble, Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez passed on little Melanie Oudin (5-foot-6), who she called her Fed Cup MVP, and chose to throw rookie Vandeweghe into the Fed Cup frying pan against the Italians who had won 10 of their last 12 matches.
Vaderweghe had a couple of nice wins this summer, including a trophy victory over Vera Zvonereva, and decent runs in Asia this fall. But she’s still very much a raw, untested wannabe with a Big Babe game. Still, she began well with an ace and a service winner. But Schiavone, one of the most savvy vets in the game, who since winning Roland Garros has morphed from an outstanding career journeywoman to an elite star, is now expected to routinely dismiss lower-ranked foes.
Vandeweghe had her moments. Her serve and forehand were, at times, imposing. But the No. 7-ranked Schiavone soon broke her with the ease of Maria Callas hitting a high “C” or a Roman chef cutting through a chunk of mozzarella. Schiavone is no Nadal or Federer. But her grunt is almost as good as Rafa’s, and her variety is a bit suggestive of Roger’s. Reading Vandeweghe’s moves and running her corner to corner, the Italian showed little mercy, as the sweet teen fell in poignant tears 6-4, 6-2.
Similarly, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, ranked No. 60 and fighting a sinus infection, fell behind against the seasoned Pennetta. Down 5-1, the creative fashionista created a furious comeback, but couldn’t fashion a winner on the one set point she had and soon failed on two tough but makeable volleys in the tiebreak before cramping en route to a disheartening 7-6(4), 6-2 loss.
More tears, forlorn faces and deep questions. Even Fernandez asked the media if they had any ideas for pep talks. Enter Oudin, the darling of the ’09 U.S. Open, who this year has struggled through a sophomore slump.
Certainly, in this intriguing battle of pugnacious, quickstep, blast-and-scramble mighty mites, the 30-year-old Schiavone would prevail over teen Oudin. In two matches she had never lost to the Georgian. But playing for team and country —knowing a loss would mean defeat in the Cup — Oudin refused to back down, played inspired defense and some power offense. Getting in touch with her inner-Serena, she blasted a backhand at Schiavone’s belly. Looking perplexed and glum, the Italian seemed to be saying, “This can not be.” In the zone, fearless and free, Oudin played world-class ball, as if her dreary year had been nothing but a mirage. The grinder, who admitted that “it kind of stunk” to be benched the day before, posted a stunning 6-3, 6-1 win. But to no avail. Vandeweghe again fought hard and had slim chances early but was overwhelmed, this time by Pennetta, No. 23, in a 6-1, 6-2 mismatch to conclude her weepy week-end to forget.
The Italians will never forget their victory. For the first time, America was beaten in a Fed Cup final on home soil. Italy, unlike any other country, manages to play well no matter the circumstance and year after year pulls in its top players.
Still, this year’s Cup invited many a question. What if Oudin had been in the lineup on the opening day? What if Serena or Venus had played? What if doubles, an American strength, were not the fifth and often irrelevant match? Will Oudin be able to build on her wondrous win? And will the appealing kid Vandeweghe be able to bounce back?
Then again, as captain Fernandez said, “The best thing about tennis is that there’s always a tomorrow.”