Alison Riske made her Fed Cup debut in the U.S.'s 3-1 loss to Italy.
© David Maxwell
By Sandra Harwitt, special to USTA.com
CLEVELAND — While there is no denying the 2014 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas quarterfinal tie against Italy didn’t go the way the U.S. would have preferred, all the Americans walked away with their heads held high for giving their best efforts.
The hope was that a home tie would assist the U.S. in securing a victory, especially with the tie being played at the Public Auditorium in U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez’s hometown. But Italy seems to have Fed Cup favor wherever they go of late; the country has won the title three times since 2009 and, now, moves on to the 2014 semifinals after securing a 3-1 victory over the U.S.
The Cleveland crowd certainly did Fernandez proud. Even on Sunday, when it had been snowing since early evening on Saturday, the fans came, they watched and they cheered for Team USA. And her team did her proud, too — Christina McHale, Madison Keys, Alison Riske and Lauren Davis were clearly a united team who enjoyed being together.
“The thing I'm most proud of with all of them is how they competed, how they represented their country and how they handled the pressure of playing Fed Cup for the first time,” said Fernandez of her squad, which featured three first-time Fed Cuppers (all but McHale). “They really had the best attitudes. Everybody tried as hard as they could. That's all I can ask. To me, even though we didn't win, I told the team it feels like the beginning of something special. The team had tremendous chemistry.”
In the end, however, Italy’s victory relegates the U.S. to the World Group Play-offs in April, where it is likely to face either Argentina, Canada, France or Poland.
On Saturday, Italy went ahead 2-0 with Karin Knapp beating Christina McHale, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, and then Camila Giorgi topping Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-1, in the second match of the day.
Sunday saw Fernandez change her lineup, substituting Riske for Keys to play against Knapp. Riske, making her Fed Cup debut, did an admirable job trying to stand her ground but eventually surrendered, 6-3, 7-5, allowing Knapp to clinch the tie.
“We all got together last night and we were trying to come up with our best formula to attack that first match,” Fernandez said of playing Riske. “We thought maybe someone with a clean slate that could rush Knapp would do well against her.”
As for Keys, she was not at all upset by not playing Sunday.
“We were all part of the decision,” Keys said. “Putting Alison in doesn't mean Mary Joe doesn't think I'm a good player or that I can't win. But it was just maybe it will be a surprise element, maybe it will be a different ball, they won't expect it.”
For RIske, the opportunity to play her first Fed Cup match was a moment she relished. Her mother and brother came to watch, but her father would be too nervous.
“I was so excited to come out,” Riske said. “Obviously, it was a big-pressure match as I was trying to win to keep America alive. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do so. But it was a great experience.”
In the first set, Riske fell behind 5-1, but Knapp had a hard time closing out the set. Riske broke Knapp’s serve when she was serving for the first set in the seventh game, forcing Knapp to serve it out in the ninth game.
Knapp didn’t have it easier in the second set as she had to serve for the match on three occasions. Serving for the match at 5-2, Riske broke Knapp’s serve with a backhand return winner at 0-40. Riske evened the score to 5-5 when she broke Knapp’s serve again in the ninth game when, from 30-30, Knapp double faulted and Riske hit a backhand return winner.
The bad news was that Riske was unable to hold onto her serve in the 11th game, losing the game on a second break point on a forehand error. The next game Knapp settled down and clinched the tie by serving the match out at love.
“I felt like I learned a lot,” Riske said. “I think like only good things can be taken from this. It’s a priceless opportunity.”
The lost point to Knapp ended the tie, but not the tennis. To the delight of local fans, their own Clevelander Lauren Davis teamed with Keys to win their only point of the weekend in a 6-2, 6-3 victory against the Italian duo of Nastassja Burnett and Alice Matteucci.
“It was really great,” said Davis, who hails from the nearby Cleveland suburb of Gates Mills. “The atmosphere was amazing. The crowd was very supportive. They were very loud. I was just going to go out there, have fun, enjoy the moment and really enjoy playing my first Fed Cup match for my country.”
While the U.S. left the arena the losers, Captain Fernandez was taking a positive feeling away for the future when it comes to Fed Cup.
“The Italians have a lot of depth,” she noted. “I think that's the direction we're heading in. We're starting to have a lot of depth and a lot of choices. It's exciting because there are a lot of possibilities.”