The face of the Italy v USA Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group play-off in Brindisi was always destined to be Flavia Pennetta, given the southern port city straddling the Adriatic Sea is her hometown and the venue for the tie, the intimate Circolo Tennis Brindisi, is her native club.
In fact, around the corner from where the Italians are staying – a grand, old-world hotel with a magnificent view of the water – rests a large picture of Pennetta outside a café with al-fresco dining. Pennetta was nice enough to sign the photo – or at least we think it was her hand writing.
When Pennetta was introduced at Friday’s draw, a roar of approval ensued. It trumped the reception of world No. 1 Serena Williams.
There was another loud sound minutes later – a collective gasp – when Pennetta wasn’t drawn to meet Williams in Saturday’s singles. That task instead fell to the young Camila Giorgi.
They will be followed on court by former French Open finalist Sara Errani and Lauren Davis in a tie that pits the recent powerhouse Italy against the record 17-time champion.
The Italians have also won four straight ties against the Americans, although Williams did not play in any of them.
Pennetta herself did not seem fussed about not taking to the court on Saturday.
“We talked with the captain the day before,” she said. “We are four in our group. Everyone was ready to play. “I think he made the right decision, the decision he was thinking was the best for the team. I’m happy to be part of the team. If he needs me, he knows I’m there.”
The “he” is Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti.
If Barazzutti’s thinking was to play the percentages, the locals probably still wouldn’t approve. The only other time Pennetta played singles in Brindisi as a pro was in 2002. However, one can see the captain's rationale.
Since Williams hasn’t lost a match in 2015, aside from the Hopman Cup, is unbeaten in Fed Cup, and holds a 6-0 record against Pennetta, the likelihood of a ‘one for the ages’ victory for the latter is remote. Omitting Pennetta keeps the veteran fresh for Sunday’s singles in case Barazzutti opts for a switch.
Williams said she wasn’t surprised that the streaky, free-swinging Giorgi – she was a finalist on hard courts in Katowice a week ago but previously went 3-5 – got the nod.
“We kind of expected that,” insisted Williams, who made her Fed Cup debut up the coast in Ancona in 1999. “Camila is playing great. It’s totally expected. We’re ready.”
The inclusion of Davis, ranked No. 57 in the world, instead of Christina McHale, No. 65, might have raised a few eyebrows too. It’s not often that a late entry into a team – the speedy baseliner came in when Venus Williams withdrew earlier this week – is inserted straight into the singles.
Working in Davis’ favour was this: She topped Errani last year and is coming off an uplifting week on the green clay of Charleston where she upset Eugenie Bouchard.
However, Davis’ win over Errani came on grass. McHale has stretched Errani to three sets in both of their clay-court tussles, memorably holding a 5-0 lead in the third set at the 2011 French Open before an Errani comeback swept her to a 9-7 win in the third.
In Rome two years later, Errani needed nearly three hours and nine match points to fend off McHale.
“You have to consider so many things,” said USA captain Mary Joe Fernandez. “The surface, the matchups, who’s been playing well. And then you kind of go with the formula you might think will work the best. “Lauren is confident, has been playing a lot of matches, having the big win over Bouchard. That played a little bit into it.”
Should a decisive doubles rubber be required following Sunday’s reverse singles, the current matchup pits Pennetta and Karin Knapp against McHale and Alison Riske.
Not seeing Errani and Roberta Vinci in a live rubber for Italy will take some getting used to, the standout pair splitting last month. Any thoughts of a quick reunion in the Fed Cup were quashed when an elbow injury ruled out Vinci.
But if the action this weekend mimics the draw, we’re in for plenty of drama.
The full draw is listed below:
R1 - Camila Giorgi v Serena Williams
R2 – Sara Errani v Lauren Davis
R3 - Sara Errani v Serena Williams
R4 - Camila Giorgi v Lauren Davis
R5 - Flavia Pennetta/Karin Knapp v Christina McHale/Alison Riske