The “ChiChi” Train Keeps Rolling

This post originally appeared at Tennis Grandstand.

What makes a successful doubles pairing?

Of course there are the obvious things, like a dominant serve, a quality volley or solid groundstrokes. However, sometimes the most important thing in crucial situations is not the technical tennis, but the chemistry of the team. The most successful teams trust each other’s judgement completely, which allows them to act on both individual and team instincts on the biggest points. However, this bond doesn’t come overnight. Two of the greatest doubles teams of all time, Bob and Mike Bryan and Venus and Serena Williams, have spent a lifetime developing this chemistry; the American sibling pairs have amassed a staggering 25 Grand Slams titles between them.

Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci, while not related by blood, have perhaps the next best thing.

For what they lack in size, as they stand at just 5’5” and 5’4” respectively, they make up for it in guile, passion and craftiness. While each made great strides individually in singles in 2012, the Italians also ruled the doubles court; their history-making year began with a run to the Australian Open finals at the #11 seeds, where they lost to the unseeded pairing of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva.

Errani and Vinci’s exploits in 2012 were reminiscent to those that the fellow-BFF tandem of Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta put together in 2010. Dulko and Pennetta won seven titles that year, including the WTA Championships in Doha; they ended the year as No. 1 and finally got their slam at the 2011 Australian Open.

Following the loss Down Under, Errani and Vinci went on a tear, winning WTA events in Acapulco, Monterrey, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In addition, they came out on top of Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko in three sets to triumph at Roland Garros, and dominated Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in two to win the US Open. They ascended to the No. 1 ranking in September and finished the year in the top spot.

When Errani and Vinci returned to Australia in 2013, with one less “1” next to their seeding, the pair came full circle.

Much of the Australian Open doubles tournament’s narrative focused on the Williams sisters, the “de facto best team in the world regardless of the rankings.” There were calls, perhaps unfair ones, for the Williams sisters to be bumped to the top seeding. The duo only played two of the four slams in 2012, in addition to the Olympics. Facing off against the 12th-seeded Americans in the quarterfinals, Errani and Vinci appeared determined to prove their worth. The Americans served for the match twice in the second set and led 3-0 in the third, but the Italians would rally for a 3-6, 7-6(1), 7-5 win. Although the Williams sisters won Wimbledon in 2012 and took home Olympic gold, the Italians did just as much winning on the biggest stages last year. Once a team learns how to win together, it’s a hard habit to break.

The tandem defeated the Cinderella story of the tournament, wildcard Australians Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 to win their third major championship. ”Our strength is that we always play together,” Vinci said, after winning the title. “We went out there today with lots of grit, we really wanted to win.”

In the last four slams, the Italians have amassed a 20-1 record, the only loss coming in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon to Hlavackova and Hradecka. They now hold 14 doubles titles total, including their three majors. Prior to this stretch, the pair had never won a title greater than an International-level WTA event.

Sometimes, continued success can bring about ego trips and adversely affect a team’s chemistry. For example, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova, who won three grand slam doubles titles together, had a notorious falling out at an exhibition match in Chile in 2000; when Kournikova agreed with a lines judge about a disputed call, Hingis retorted, “Do you think you are the queen? Because I am the queen.” A screaming match featuring the throwing of flowers, vases and trophies reportedly followed afterwards in the locker room.

Conversely, all of their success has appeared to make Errani and Vinci’s friendship stronger than ever; as far as we know, the biggest off-court spat the Italians have ever had was spurred on by the question: “Who can keep it up for longer?”

Fed Cup – Fun and Frolic

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.

Fed Cup Semifinals Preview

The Czech Republic are the defending Fed Cup champions, winning the 2011 title with a 3-2 score against Russia.

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.”