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20 April 2013

Clash of the titans swings strongly Italy's way


By Chris Bowers

Photo: Ray GiubiloRoberta Vinci (ITA)

PALERMO, ITALY: After two years of being blue and red, the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas may be going blue and white after Italy took a 2-0 lead over Czech Republic on the opening day of the eagerly awaited clash between the competition’s champions of the past four years.

On a clay court that proved painfully slow for the Czechs despite the match being played mostly in bright Mediterranean sunshine, Italy showed its greater claycourt prowess with wins for Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. While Errani’s 64 62 win over Lucie Safarova is no surprise given that Errani is ranked No. 7 and Safarova No. 25, Vinci has now beaten Kvitova twice in six days on clay following her win in the final of the Katowice tournament in Poland last Sunday.

Vinci beat Kvitova 64 61 – very similar in score to the 76 61 with which she beat her on Sunday – in a match notable for its breaks of serve. There were nine in the first set, Vinci’s service hold in the seventh game playing the role a break normally does. And Kvitova didn’t hold serve once in the match, her five games coming exclusively from breaks.

But it was also a match rich in varied tennis, a real connoisseur’s contest. Vinci is known for her slice, but hers was an all-court performance.

She made particular use of the drop shot, to the point where even when Kvitova ran the shorter balls down, Vinci was usually there to put the next shot away. Her infectious enthusiasm also worked the crowd to perfection, to the point where it was almost a carnival atmosphere by the time she won in 93 minutes.

As the match wore on, Vinci got more and more into Kvitova’s head. While the slight Italian hit five aces, her fifth on match point, the big-hitting Czech threw in eight double faults, many of them at crucial moments. Kvitova was well and truly outpsyched, although she hinted afterwards that she was not ‘physically ready’ for this match.

Earlier Errani had been the vastly more solid player against a nervous Safarova. The Czech was ballooning most of her volleys over the baseline during the warm-up, and when play started for real, it didn’t get much better. Aware that Errani would play like a brick wall, Safarova tried to make things happen – her strategy was to push Errani back with heavy topspin and then flatten out her crosscourt backhand. When it worked it looked very good, but the total of 37 unforced errors testifies how often it didn’t work.

The first five games went against serve, but Errani was always ahead, and it was interesting that the first service hold came as some heavy rain drops began to fall. Fortunately they only lasted a few minutes, but by then Errani was into her stride. In her first match on clay she was making very few mistakes, which put the onus on Safarova to go for more winners. And the more she went for, the more errors she made.

In retrospect, the match – and who knows, possibly the whole weekend – was decided in that first set. Once Errani had won it on her fourth set point, she took command of the second set, and the more Safarova pressed, the more the errors flowed from her racket.

All is not lost for the Czechs. If Kvitova can beat Errani in the first reverse singles – and it is seventh against eighth in the rankings, so a real 50:50 – the momentum could swing the Czechs’ way.

"I hope I can cancel this match in my mind and have a free mind for tomorrow," Kvitova said on Saturday. "I’m still getting better, and it’s obviously tough to be 100% ready to play these girls on clay but we’ll see."

Italy’s captain Corrado Barrazzutti said there was ‘no way’ he would replace Vinci from the second singles to keep her fresh for the doubles.

And with the 30-year-old Italian playing some of the best tennis of her life and up to 12th in the rankings, it seems a perfectly logical decision.

Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live

Corrado Barazzutti (ITA) - 20/04/2013

Sara Errani (ITA) - 20/04/2013

Roberta Vinci (ITA) - 20/04/2013

Captain Petr Pala (CZE) - 20/4/13

Lucie Safarova - 20/04/2013

Petra Kvitova (CZE) - 20/4/13

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    Circolo del Tennis Palermo, Palermo, Italy

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