By Matt Cronin
FROM THE BNP PARIBAS FED CUP FINAL IN CAGLIARI – Alexandra Panova, who seems to answer to every question with an incredulous look on her face, says that she enjoyed all three hours of her 5-7, 7-5, 8-6 loss to Roberta Vinci in the opening match of Russia’s Fed Cup Final against Italy except for “only a couple of minutes when I was cramping it wasn’t so pleasant.”
The Italian didn’t quite have as much fun, but she did grab the win and that was all that mattered. Her level was pretty poor for the most part, but she did step up in the third set and belt some forehands, and while her net play was average, it helped when she came in and put pressure on Panova. Her serve was largely infective as she was constantly broken. Her short slice backhand down the lines was wonderful to watch as it skipped out of the reach of the taller Russian. But one never felt Vinci was in control during the match and largely, she wasn’t.
But after Panova blew three match points – and I mean really blew them up 5-2 in the second set – there was a feeling of an inevitable win for Italy that permeated the packed stadium, even when the Russian came back in the third set and held another match point serving at 5-4 in the third set. Some how, some way Panova was going to lose. And that she did.
HERE is my full report on that match and much of the day.
There are reasons why certain players crack the top 15, reach the second weeks of Slams and other don’t– the elite know how to play under pressure and the lesser ones tend to fold. Off court, Panova acts like she’s been there before. Perhaps that’s just because she nervous around the press and she immediately defaults to wise cracking as a defense mechanism, or maybe she views her world no. 136 ranking differently than others do. She’s 24 years old and grew up playing with Alisa Kleybanova, who has a far better resume and perspective on life. She does have some talent off the ground, but she doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive strategy other than to hit the ball into the open court. That can work if a player is on fire, but against a smart woman like Vinci, unless you are a top 10 player, over the long haul it will not, even if she is having a down day.
Captain Shamil Tarpischev is coaching is 50th Fed Cup tie, which is a tremendous amount for any man or woman. Sometimes he looks engaged on the sidelines, but other times he does not. There were moment during the Panova match when it appeared obvious that he should get into her ears during her changeover and he sat quietly by. Maybe that is the right way to go with certain players and given that he has coached his teams to four titles and constantly gets brings them deep, he must be given the benefit of the doubt most of the time.
But on Saturday, it sure seemed like it should have been Fed Cup coach Anastasia Myskina on the sidelines, who was deeply engaged the match, yelling support, instruction, or burying her face in her hands after lousy points. She’s only 32 years old, the same age as Serena Williams, and retired early due to foot trouble. Had she not, the former world No. 2 and French Open champion had another couple of Slams in her, assuming that she healed properly. But she is never coming back so perhaps so will quench her thirst of competition by taking over the captain’s helm sometime in the future. She would sure make for a colorful and enthusiastic captain.
Here is where Tarpischev must really be given credit: in picking 18-year-old lefthander Irena Khromacheva over Alisa Kleybanova against Sara Errani. The Italian did win the match 6-1 6-4, but Khromacheva had chances in the second set and as she said, had she stepped a little further inside the court on some important points she could have brought it to a third. Like Errani, she is small, but she’s very fast, packs ample power and competes pretty well. Italy may hold a 2-0 lead but it appears in the case of Khromacheva, Tarpischev and Myskina have a player to work with in the future.
Errani will attempt to close out the tie on Sunday against either Panova or Alisa Kleybanova, whom one would think will be asked to compete as Panova’s legs will be shot. Also expect Flavia Pennetta to get the call is singles against Khromacheva if Errani doesn’t close it out, as Italian Captain Corrado Barazzutti must save Vinci for the doubles if needed.