This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.
Flavia and Francesca.
While the two might be in the wrong business to be known by a single stage name, there is no doubt that Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone have been the faces of Italian women’s tennis for the better part of a decade.
Despite having contrasting styles, each brings something unique to women’s tennis. Schiavone, no doubt the flashier of the two, is the master of an all-court game and a classic clay court style; she uses an extreme Eastern grip on her one-handed backhand, a dying art in women’s tennis. Pennetta, to her credit, possesses some of the most aesthetically pleasing groundstrokes on the WTA; she’s renowned for her great timing, clean strokes, tenacity and net skills. They are similar in one respect; each time they’ve taken the court, they’ve played with immense passion and heart.
They’ve triumphed individually; Pennetta was the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top ten in singles, win a major title in doubles when she triumphed with Gisela Dulko in women’s doubles at the Australian Open in 2011 and be ranked No. 1 in either discipline when she and Dulko topped the women’s doubles list; Schiavone became the first Italian woman to ever be ranked in the top five in singles and win a singles major title at Roland Garros in 2010. They’ve triumphed together; with a combined a 48-24 total record in Fed Cup, the duo led Italy to three titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
Each has had so many standout moments over their long careers that it’s difficult to pick just one. Aside from her major triumph, Schiavone will probably best be remembered for one of the highest quality matches in the history of the WTA, when she and Svetlana Kuznetsova contested the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history at the Australian Open in 2011.
Pennetta, a three-time US Open quarterfinalist, made the most improbable of her three runs in 2011. Following her third round defeat of Maria Sharapova, Pennetta rallied past Peng Shuai, dry heaves and the mid-day New York heat to advance to her third career US Open quarterfinal. Having witnessed the match live, I can scarcely think of many other times when a New York crowd so firmly and whole-heartedly supported a non-American player.
In recent years, however, age and injuries have played their part. Barely hanging on to her spot in the top 100, Pennetta returned from a six month absence after wrist surgery in Acapulco, where Schiavone won back-to-back matches for the first time since Wimbledon. In that time, Italian women’s tennis had been overtaken by another dynamic duo.
Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci spent a lot of time during those three Fed Cup title runs cheering on the sidelines. However, they’ve taken the mantle vacated by Schiavone and Pennetta and firmly seized control of it. Errani became the second Italian woman to reach a major final, something some expected Pennetta to do. Vinci, despite being just a year younger than Pennetta, has had the best 18 months of her singles career. They show no signs of slowing down in doubles either, as they currently hold three of the four majors and are the undisputed No. 1 team in the world.
In the first round of Fed Cup, it was Errani and Vinci who singlehandedly led Italy over the United States and instead, Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett cheered from the sidelines. It was the first time neither Pennetta nor Schiavone were named to an Italian Fed Cup team in over 10 years; one or the other was always a constant presence since Schiavone made her debut in 2002, and Pennetta a year later in 2003.
On a Wednesday in Indian Wells, these two WTA stalwarts, Fed Cup teammates and friends took the court for a singles match for the first time in three years. After Schiavone defeated Pennetta 7-5, 6-1 in a non-televised match under the setting California sun, one couldn’t help but wonder if the sun is also setting on their time at the top of the game. Whatever happens at the end of this season, it would be fitting for two of the WTA’s strongest characters to leave the sport the way they entered it.
Fed Cup time is the best time, and this is why. On the eve of the World Group semifinals and playoffs, observe typical team bonding activities.
Bojana Jovanovski, Jelena Jankovic and Aleksandra Krunic form a less than intimidating biker gang.
Johanna Larsson and Sofia Arvidsson already booked their tickets to the gun show. Put ‘em up, ladies.
Flavia Pennetta reveals her master plan to help Italy to victory against the Czechs – puppeteering the hosts to do her bidding from the bench. Roberta Vinci approves.
Andrea Petkovic, returning to compete for Germany after a back injury, realizes why alternative dance therapy was a bad idea. Mona Barthel tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen.
(Photos: Fed Cup)
Russia vs. Serbia: Sports Palace “Megasport” – Moscow, Russia
Russia – Elena Vesnina, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Kirilenko, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Serbia- Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic, Bojana Jovanovski, Aleksandra Krunic
With the absence of World #2 Maria Sharapova, and World #10 Vera Zvonareva sidelined with an injury, Russia’s hopes for the tie lie with World #21 Maria Kirilenko. Kirilenko has had a quietly successful year in singles, highlighted by a runner-up finish in Pattaya City (l. to Hantuchova) and a quarterfinal showing in Indian Wells (l. to Sharapova). Somewhat shockingly, however, Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev has elected to leave her out of the opening day in singles. Instead, he will turn to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Both, particularly Pavlyuchenkova, have not shown stellar form this year, and Tarpischev is taking a huge gamble on the opening day. Kuznetsova, a team stalwart, has played in 15 career Fed Cup ties and this is her second tie this year, having helped her team defeat Spain in the opening round. Russia also possess strong prowess in doubles, as Kirilenko is currently ranked #7 in the discipline. Elena Vesnina, currently ranked #11, has been ranked in the top 10 in doubles, and Kuznetsova has won two career Grand Slams in doubles, including at the Australian Open earlier this year partnering Zvonareva.
Serbia will have both their marquee players headlining their squad, as former World #1’s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic will be playing their first tie this season. However, both are surrounded by question marks coming into Moscow. Ivanovic, who has experienced a resurgence in form this season, reached the fourth round at the Australian Open (l. to Kvitova). However, despite these successes, she has reportedly split with coach Nigel Sears. Jankovic, on the other hand, is far from her best form; despite reaching the semifinals in Copenhagen last week (l. to Kerber), she has lost in her opening round three times this season, including in Indian Wells and Miami. The burden will not solely be on the veteran’s shoulders, as youngsters Bojana Jovanovski and Aleksandra Krunic have already proven themselves capable of competing at the highest level in the team competition. The two rallied the team from 2-1 down against Belgium in the opening round earlier this year; Jovanovski won her 2nd singles match and then teamed with Krunic to clinch the deciding doubles tie.
Russia leads Serbia 3-0 in the career head to head, and the last meeting was a 3-2 victory for the Russians in the 2010 World Group first round.
Czech Republic vs. Italy: CEZ Arena – Ostrava, Cezch Republic
Czech Republic – Lucie Hradecka, Lucie Safarova, Petra Kvitova, Andrea Hlavackova
Italy - Roberta Vinci, Flavia Pennetta, Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani
Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova will be leading the Czech squad at home against a veteran Italian team. Because of injury and illness, the World #3 has only played three matches since the Czechs defeated Germany in their opening match in the World Group in February. She has, however, won 27 consecutive matches on indoor hard courts, explaining the choice of surface and venue for the hosts. Safarova, a stalwart in the top 30 for the past few seasons, is coming off a run to the finals in Charleston (l. to Serena Williams) and has been in decent form to start the season. Kvitova and Safarova will be expected to play singles for the host nation, while defending French Open champions Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka are on tap for the doubles rubber.
Italy, the Fed Cup champions in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010, are in a state of flux entering the semifinals. Both Schiavone and Vinci have been struggling to find form this season, while Sara Errani has established herself as one of the breakout players of the 2012 season. Errani, a two-time title winner already on the WTA this season, also made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (l. to Kvitova). Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti will have to rely heavily on Errani in this tie, as she has been tapped to play singles behind Francesca Schiavone. She and Roberta Vinci have also been selected for doubles; they have partnered for three WTA doubles titles this season, and were runners-up at the Australian Open.
The head-to-head is 4-3 in favor of the Czechs, however, Italy has won three in a row. The last meeting between these two teams came in 2012, where Italy swept aside the Czechs, 5-0 in the semifinals. “It will be good revenge,” Kvitova remarked about the tie. “Last time when played against them we lost 5-0, so it wasn’t really a good result and we have bad memories from this.”
(Photos & quotes: Fed Cup)