Liezel Huber and Varvara Lepchenko talk things over during the doubles match.
© Ray Giubilo
Jamie Hampton and Roberta Vinci shake hands after the fourth singles match.
© Ray Giubilo
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
The U.S. Fed Cup team came to Rimini, Italy as the decided underdog against an Italian team playing at home, on clay and with an experienced team featuring two top-20 players and the world’s No. 1 doubles team.
The U.S. squad of captain Mary Joe Fernandez featured two Fed Cup rookies in Varvara Lepchenko and Jamie Hampton, veteran doubles stalwart Liezel Huber, and Melanie Oudin—a late replacement for the injured Sloane Stephens.
But while this matchup may have looked like a mismatch on paper, all four U.S. players showed great heart and grit in representing the U.S., turning this first-round encounter into a highly competitive clash. Indeed, the U.S. team fought its collective heart out, with Lepchenko, winning both of her singles matches in her Fed Cup debut, but in the end, Italy’s experience paid off, and it clinched the tie 3-2 as the world’s No. 1 doubles team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci defeated Lepchenko and Huber 6-2, 6-2 in the deciding doubles match.
Italy now advances to the Fed Cup Semifinals against the Czech Republic and the U.S. moves into a World Group Playoff in April, with its opponent to be determined at a draw to be held on February 13. The U.S. will need to win that Playoff in order to maintain its spot in the World Group for 2014.
Despite the loss, Fernandez was extremely pleased with her team’s fight and effort.
"I am really proud of the team," Fernandez said. "They played their hearts out. We knew it was going to be an uphill battle in every match. Varvara was MVP. She played some of her best tennis when it mattered most. I am really proud of her Fed Cup debut and the way she competed."
The U.S. and Italy entered the second day of competition tied 1-1 after a gutsy, three-set singles win from Lepchenko over Vinci on Day 1 and a win for Errani over Hampton.
Lepchenko took the court first Sunday against Errani, the world No. 7, in a matchup of No. 1 singles players, and, as was the case in Day One, again left everything she had on the court. She broke the Italian as she served for the first set, and ultimately won 7-5, 6-2 as she broke Errani on her first match point in the second to give the U.S. a 2-1 advantage and earn her first career win against a top 10 player.
"My first goal here was to play my tennis," Lepchenko, the world’s No. 21-ranked player, said of her first tie. "Second, I wanted to help my team win this tie. It turned out to be a good week for me and I am happy to help out my team."
After falling to Errani in straight sets on Saturday, Hampton, ranked No. 64, came out fighting against Vinci on Sunday. She pushed the world’s No. 16 to three sets, but ultimately Vinci’s experience showed and the Italian prevailed 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 as the American was able to convert on just three of 10 break point chances.
The deciding doubles match was originally slated to feature Huber and Oudin against Italy’s Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett, but both Fernandez and Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti made substitutions with a spot in the Fed Cup semis on the line. Fernandez moved in her best singles player, Lepchenko, fresh off a doubles semifinals appearance at the Australian Open, to pair with the four-time Grand Slam doubles champion Huber to face the Australian Open champions Errani and Vinci.
The confidence and familiarity of the Italian pair showed early, as they went up a break at 4-2 in the first on a backhand volley winner from Vinci and then broke again to win the first set with another Vinci volley winner.
In the second, the Italians used a few great lobs to put Huber and Lepchenko on the defensive, and Errani then put away an overhand winner for a 3-1 lead, the first of three straight breaks of serve.
Huber and Lepchenko had a chance to make it four straight breaks but the Italians moved the game to deuce, gained the advantage when Lepchenko lobbed long and held for a commanding 5-2 lead. They closed it out in the next game, breaking Huber’s serve when Vinci hit a winning lob just inside the baseline, giving Italy the win, and a ticket to the Semifinals.
Although Huber and Lepchenko wished they could have pulled out the victory, they are looking forward to pairing up again for the U.S. Fed Cup team.
"I think that Varvara and I teamed together very well for the first time," Huber said. "If we play again, I think we will have good results. We will try to make the move before the other team makes the move next time." But walking away from this, I think each one of us thinks this is the best week out of the year, and that Mary Joe will put a great team together next time."
"I am really proud of the way everyone handled the atmosphere," said Fernandez of her team. "It was a lot of new experiences and overall, it was a very positive experience."