This weekend, the Tennis Club Cagliari in Sardinia hosts the Fed Cup 2013 final between Italy and Russia.
The climax of the competition should be one of the highlights of the tennis calendar, but instead it has been mired in controversy. The ITF’s decision to hold the final this weekend, clashing with the WTA’s Tournament of Champions, means that the battle for the silverware will be one of the most lopsided in years. While Italy is fielding a strong team that features four top 50 players and the world’s best doubles partnership, no one on the Russian squad is ranked inside the top 130.
Sara Errani (Player Profile) and Roberta Vinci (Player Profile) have had successful singles seasons. Errani qualified for the WTA Championships in Istanbul for the second year in a row, and Vinci won two International titles. (That feat meant she was eligible for the Tournament of Champions, but she opted to play the Fed Cup showpiece rather than chase prize money and ranking points in Sofia.) Together, they won the Australian Open doubles title and maintained their place at the pinnacle of the doubles rankings. Rounding out the Italian team are Flavia Pennetta (Player Profile), who reached the US Open semi-finals two months ago, and Karin Knapp (Player Profile), now ranked 41st after starting the year outside the top 100.
Russia has no shortage of star players – there are six in the top 30 – but not one of them has travelled to Sardinia. Maria Sharapova has rarely played the competition and is still recovering from shoulder bursitis. Maria Kirilenko, Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are in Sofia. Two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova declined an invitation to play, as did Ekaterina Makarova. That leaves a team comprised of Alexandra Panova (Player Profile), Alisa Kleybanova (Player Profile), Irina Khromacheva (Player Profile) and Margarita Gasparyan (Player Profile). All are young and, with the exception of Kleybanova, inexperienced at the top level. Russia’s captain Shamil Tarpishev has been candid about his country’s prospects, saying they have “no chances” of causing an upset and are just aiming to gain experience.
Playing for one’s country can bring out the best in athletes. Throughout Davis Cup and Fed Cup history, we have seen lowly ranked players take down more illustrious rivals, boosted by patriotic duty and vociferous fan support. Unfortunately for the Russians, fan support will be thin on the ground at the Tennis Club Cagliari. Italy has become a Fed Cup powerhouse in recent years – winning the trophy three times from 2006 – 2010 – and the locals will cheer their team all the way to a highly anticipated fourth title.
Russia’s best hope is that Kleybanova, on the comeback trail after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2012, can win both of her singles matches. She is 0-2 in her head-to-head with Vinci, but has beaten Errani twice before. Yet even if the world number 183 can pull off two massive upsets, the visitors will still have to get a point from either Panova’s singles matches (she has never played Errani or Vinci) or the doubles rubber. Two victories for the underdogs are unlikely; three are all but impossible.
Next year’s Fed Cup final has been put back a week to avoid conflict with the 2014 Tournament of Champions, but that news is of no use to the Russian women attempting to avoid humiliation this weekend. Unless injury or illness strike the Italian squad, this final will be a swift, underwhelming affair. The ever-professional and fiercely patriotic Errani and Vinci will charge out of the blocks on Saturday and give the home team a commanding 2-0 lead; they’ll then the deal on Sunday amid blaring klaxons and deafening cheers.