FED CUP: Italy 3, Lepchenko 2

Without Serena or Sloane, Mary Jo Fernandez’s US Fed Cup Team wasn’t given much of a chance last weekend on clay in Rimini, Italy. Facing the #1 doubles team in the world, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci (ranked 7th and 16th in singles)…on paper, the Italians were intimidating opponents for Varvara Lepchenko (#21), Jamie Hampton (#64), Melanie Oudin (#86) and the legendary Liezel Huber (now ranked 8th overall in doubles).

But those who know Fed Cup, know these Ties are more than strategic selections with match-ups determined by draw. They’re events that feature five rubbers – five opportunities for players to display their endurance, grit and determination; the pride of their nation at stake. Fed Cup often features athletes playing outside themselves, beyond expectation, emerging in the weekend’s spotlight.

Sure, Rimini will be remembered as a classic Fed Cup duel determined by the final doubles rubber on Sunday…but for the casual tennis fan, it will be remembered mostly as the emergence of American Varvara Lepchenko.

Photo: www.varvaralepchenko.com

Lepchenko was born in Uzbekistan. Her website’s biography reads: “Penniless, and with only tennis equipment in their bags, Varvara along with her dad and sister, jumped on a flight to the USA never to return to their native Uzbekistan.” They were granted political asylum and settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Yet sadly, Varvara’s mother was left behind. Training in Pennsylvania and the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, she turned pro in 2001, saw her mom successfully immigrate to the U.S. in 2006, became a United States citizen in 2007, and has since played on the U.S. Olympic team. Rimini, Italy was her Fed Cup debut.

In Saturday’s first rubber, Sara Errani faced little resistance from Jamie Hampton, winning 6-2, 6-1. Many felt the day’s second match would see a similar result, but Lepchenko came alive in the second-set, forced a third, and eventually defeated Roberta Vinci 2-6, 6-4, 7-5. After the first day of play, Italy and the U.S. were even at 1-all.

Up first on Sunday, Lepchenko absolutely dominated Sara Errani 7-5, 6-2, putting the U.S. in the lead, on the road, on clay; remarkable play, immune to the pressure of her first Fed Cup Tie. In the 4th rubber, Jamie Hampton battled as well, but ran out of gas in the third set, losing to Vinci 2-6, 6-4, 1-6.

So in classic Fed Cup fashion, it all came down to the final doubles event…the #1 doubles team in the world versus the red-hot Lepchenko and highly decorated doubles champion Liezel Huber, both immigrants who deeply value their citizenship. With Varvara’s momentum, it looked like an upset in the making…

Huber and Lepchenko – Photographer: Ray Giubilo

…but it turned out to be a basic anticlimax. Errani and Vinci, despite playing all weekend, put on a doubles clinic…demonstrating why they’re the best in the world right now. The Italians easily won the match 6-2, 6-2, winning the Tie for their nation.

So this April, Italy will host two-time defending champs Czech Republic in the World Group Semifinals, while the U.S. Fed Cup Team will play just to stay IN the World Group vs. Group II winners Switzerland, Sweden, Spain or Germany.

The other Semifinal this April will feature Russia at home vs. Slovak Republic. The Russians defeated Japan over the weekend 3-2, while Slovak Republic defeated Serbia on the road.