To Italy, with Inexperience

Teenager Khromacheva will have to play the match of her life to upset Errani on clay

 

FROM THE 2013 FED CUP BY BNP PARIBAS FINAL IN CAGLIARI, SARDINIA – It’s been almost 10 years now since Russia broke out as a dominant women’s tennis nation: it was the summer of 2004 and in just a three- month period three different women swept to Slam titles starting with Anastasia Myskina at Roland Garros, then Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon, and then Svetlana Kuznetsova at the US Open. The Williams sister take over of the tour was briefly forgotten, as was the rise of the Belgians. The post-Kournikova Russians were all the rage.

A decade or so later, Russia is still a very deep nation, but it is certainly not a dominant one. Since 2004, no new Russian face has broke out in a smile since after winning a Slam. Sharapova has won three more, and Kuznetsova one. Dinara Safina became No .1, but was Slam-less.

Even though she is Serena Williams age, Myskina has long since retired and she has become a notable coach of the Russia Fed Cup squad, as well as her federation’s vice president.  In fact, it seems that she is doing the lion’s share of coaching during practice and it would not be a surprise if and when Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev retires that she takes the helm. Myskina’s foe from the juniors, Elena Dementieva (whom both she and Kuznetsova bested for Slams titles in 2004) has also retired but is scheduled to also come to Cagliari as a TV broadcaster.

As most fans now know, none of Russia’s top 11 players are in Cagliari. Every one of them has a different reason for not showing up, but at this point it is not relevant to retread through old ground other than to repeat what Myskina told me yesterday: when she was an active player, Fed Cup always came first. There was no Tournament of Champions in Sofia back in her day, so she was not forced to choose between Fed Cup and Sofia like three other Russians did this week, but the WTA wasn’t dismissing the significance of the most important team event in the world outside of the Olympics back then either.

For those who don’t buy that contention consider this: the Fed Cu final, which takes place on an island that is not cheap to get to, has sold out its 5000 seat stadium for both days. There are WTA Premier events such as Stanford that don’t do that well, so at the very least, Fed Cup can be said to be at least just as valuable as a much ballyhooed WTA event.

Fed Cup is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, which means it predates the founding of the WTA by a decade. It helped raise the profile of women’s tennis before Gladys Heldman, Billie Jean King and company helped found the WTA. Everyone is today games should know that and realize that without Fed Cup, the WTA may have taken longer to get off the ground. It had value then and still does today and the tour should make sure to support it in the future, even at the expense of some tournament fees.

Next year the Sofia versus Fed Cup final issue won’t matter, as Fed Cup will move back into an open week as the ATP Paris Bercy Masters and Sofia will stay where they are and the ATP World Finals moves back a week. W

It is getting plenty of attention in Italy and Russia this week and next year it should get the attention that it truly deserves throughout the world.

Now on to this weekend’s upcoming tie, which on paper is pretty intriguing if the possibility of an upset is allowed. Russian captain Shamil Tarpischev decided once again to do something unorthodox and has selected 18-year-old Irina Khromacheva to play Italian backboard Sara Errani in the second match on Saturday. Khromacheva has had very good junior results and very decent ones on the ITF circuit but to have go up against an experienced player such as Errani in a hostile environment will be a very difficult task. Khromacheva’s 2013 results do not lend themselves to any rational prediction of an upset.

Maybe Tarpischev should have chosen former top-15 player Alisa Kleybanova to face Errani, as she’s the only player on the team with a strong enough resume that would lead one to believe she has a chance to best Errani if she gets red hot. But Kleybanova has not been playing that well in practice, plus the cancer survivor isn’t sure how her body will hold up on red clay as it will be first time competing on the surface in two and half years. So  Tarpischev instead decided to ask Khromacheva to make her debut, who at 18, isn’t exactly at the level than say Myskina was at the same age.

“It’s the final of Fed Cup so everything is possible,” Khromacheva said. “I have one more day to go, but I’m not nervous at all.”

That we shall see when she gets on court in front of 5000 enthusiastic Italian fans.

The one thing that could play in Khromacheva’s favor is that none of the Italians have seen her play before. But Errani isn’t the type of player who will hit herself out of the match (although she is prone to nerves) so it’s highly unlikely that the Italian will go down. If she does, it will be one of the biggest upsets in Fed Cup history.

Russia’s Alexandra Panova begin the tie against Roberta Vinci, whom she has never gone up against, but she appears to be confident, saying that she “knows how to play her.” Perhaps she has seen Vinci play plenty, but actually being across the net against someone who has so much know how, and can produce a dozen different spins and off pace balls, will be a different matter all together. It’s highly possible that Panova will quickly become confused. The 24-year-old has had some solid results on the Challenger level on clay this year, but again, playing well in the minor leagues is no indication that a competitor can play with the big girls.

However, Tarpischev really has no choice but to play the hand that he has been dealt, or helped deal himself in his many years as captain, and his only really hope is that Vinci is vulnerable. That formula would see Panova pulling off an upset and then Tarpischev being able to insert a fresh Kleybanova against Vinci on Sunday. If Kleybanova can grab that win and the tie goes down to the doubles, than the pressure on the Italians will be intense and the Russian’s will at least have a wild puncher’s chance at an upset.

But really, the chances of them pulling it off are for all intents and purposes infinitesimal. Whatever the case, as Myskina said on Friday, this could be the beginning of a new Russian squad in the coming years, with Khromacheva and Russian’s No. 4 player on this team, another teen in Margarita Gasparyan, playing a big role. Myskina says that the most important thing for her players is be able to deal with the circumstances first, and then forehands and backhands later.  She’s been stressing one critical theme to her squad, which in 2004 in Paris she did very well every match out: “just fight.”

 Of Note

The eight-player singles field for the 2013 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals is now set as Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet clinched the final two berths following Milos Raonic’s third-round loss to Tomas Berdych at the Paris/Bercy Masters. Other qualifiers are Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Juan martin Del Potro, David Ferrer, Roger Federer and Berdych. On Friday in Paris, Djokovic took down Wawrinka in straight sets. I will be on site in London next week.

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