November 8, 2010

A New Era

A quick look at the record books in Fed Cup history shows a slew of American power. The U.S. leads all in number of titles (seventeen), most consecutive titles (seven, from 1976 to 1982), tie wins, rubber wins, and on and on. But if you look at what's happened the past couple years, things are a little different.

Italy has played in the championships for five straight years and won three of those titles, including successfully defending this past weekend in the finals held in San Diego. The ladies from Europe took on the United States for a second year in a row and, though they ceded one rubber this time, they came away victorious yet again.

Of course you could argue that the Americans didn't send their A-team to California -- both Serena and Venus Williams had to bow out and Melanie Oudin, once considered the country's greatest prospect for the future, has since fallen out of the top fifty and wasn't even the highest ranked singles player on this year's squad.

But you still can't ignore how much the Italians have improved. Francesca Schiavone made a huge mark for the country, of course, when she became the first woman from the peninsula to not only make a Grand Slam final, but to also win one back in Paris. And though Flavia Pennetta beat her countrywoman into the top ten of the sport last year, her bigger accomplishment might have been her ascent to become half of the top-ranked doubles team in the world -- she and Argentine Gisela Dulko have won seven titles this year, including the year-end championships in Doha. Flavia and Francesca each took wins in their first two singles rubbers this past weekend, and Pennetta sealed the victory when she defeated CoCo Vandeweghe in the fourth. With a 3-1 lead -- Oudin was able to defeat Schiavone on Sunday -- the doubles round was skipped, and the Italian ladies hoisted the Fed Cup trophy again.

It might be hard to count the four women who played this weekend -- Schiavone and Pennetta were joined by Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci -- as the most consistent threats on Tour, but with the highest ranks of women's tennis so diverse it's hard to pick any other country that could possibly have won this prize. And though we may not have officially entered a period of total Italian domination on the tennis courts, it sure looks like the tide is turning in that direction.

And as for any country that wants to beat them next year, well she'll really have to bring her best to the table.

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