SAN DIEGO – Italy is well on its way to its second straight Fed Cup final victory against the United States.
After straight-set victories by Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta on Saturday, the only real question is whether it'll be another shutout.
Schiavone, the French Open winner, got Italy off to a fast start with a 6-2, 6-4 victory against 18-year-old CoCo Vandeweghe, who was making her Fed Cup debut in her hometown.
Pennetta then beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands 7-6 (4), 6-2 to put the Italians in control of the best-of-five competition.
The Italians need just one more victory to secure their third Fed Cup title in five years. Italy beat the United States 4-0 last year. This is the second straight final the U.S. has played without Venus and Serena Williams, who are out with injuries.
"I'm very happy because they play with heart and they won two important matches," Italy captain Corrado Barazzutti said. "So we are two-love. But it is not finished, the match."
Reverse singles are Sunday, with Schiavone scheduled to face Mattek-Sands and Vandeweghe scheduled to face Pennetta prior to the doubles match. However, captains can change players up to an hour before the match. So it wouldn't be surprising to see Melanie Oudin play for the Americans, especially because Mattek-Sands was cramping in both calves and shins.
After losing five straight games to let Mattek-Sands take a 6-5 lead, Pennetta fought back from set point to win the 12th game to force a tiebreaker.
Pennetta seemed all but finished in the first set when Mattek-Sands grabbed the momentum at 6-5 and had the crowd on its feet at the San Diego Sports Arena. Pennetta struggled with her serve in the next game and handed Mattek-Sands set point before fighting back to force a tiebreaker, which had the rest of the Italian players on their feet. Pennetta, ranked No. 23, won the final two points of the tiebreaker, then dominated the second set.
"When you play for your country, and you have people outside screaming and cheering for you, you try to fight for every last point," Pennetta said. "So I am really happy today. But it was not easy. I think I didn't play my best tennis. I was running and running and fighting and trying to do my best all the time."
Mattek-Sands was tended to twice in the second set by the team trainer.
"I feel I was playing very well," she said. "I definitely had my chances."
Schiavone needed just 1 hour, 23 minutes to put away Vandeweghe, who was making her Fed Cup debut. Vandeweghe grew up in the luxury enclave of Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County and is the niece of former NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe.
Vandeweghe opened the match with an ace and followed it with an unreturnable serve for a 30-0 lead.
"I say, 'Oh God, today is tough,' " Schiavone said later.
The top Italian singles player quickly turned it around and broke serve, winning the game when Vandeweghe double-faulted on the last two points.
"Of course there are going to be nerves in the beginning of the match," Vandeweghe said. "And I think that was one of the reasons I faulted on those two points to get rid of the advantage and give her a game."
Vandeweghe tied the second set at 4-4 by breaking Schiavone's serve. The Italian was too strong, though. She broke Vandeweghe's serve, then served it out, winning the match when Vandeweghe hit a backhand service return into the net.
Schiavone held the advantage in everything from ranking — she's No. 7, Vandeweghe is No. 114 — to her 19-14 overall record in Fed Cup.
But she said she doesn't feel she can with matches based on her reputation since winning the French Open.
"Absolutely not," Schiavone said. "I don't believe in those kinds of things and I believe that she feels pressure on the court, not just for the T-shirt or for the name. Because when you serve good you don't give her the chance to find the solution.
"She is young and played a good match for the first time in Fed Cup."
U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez picked Vandeweghe over Melanie Oudin as the No. 2 U.S. singles player based on her big serves and heavy groundstrokes.
"The second set was played a lot better by me and I felt more comfortable with her game and her patterns matching up to my game," Vandeweghe said. "I kind of found a little more rhythm."