Italy's Fed Cup team laid groundwork for success at US Open

ROME (AP) The sudden success of Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta isn't really so sudden.

The groundwork behind Saturday's all-Italian U.S. Open final was laid down nine years ago.

It all started when an Italy team led by Francesca Schiavone, Pennetta and Vinci beat a Belgium side featuring Justine Henin-Hardenne for the 2006 Fed Cup title - the country's first.

With Sara Errani also becoming an integral part of the team, the Azzurre won three more Fed Cup titles over the next seven years.

Team success translated into individual accomplishments as Schiavone won the French Open in 2010 and finished runner-up in 2011. Errani finished runner-up at the 2012 French Open and Pennetta reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open for the first time a year later.

In between, Pennetta reached the No. 1 ranking in doubles with Argentine partner Gisela Dulko, Errani and Vinci paired together to win five doubles Grand Slams, and Pennetta and Errani advanced to the semifinals of the doubles competition at this year's U.S. Open.

''It's all connected,'' longtime Italy Fed Cup captain Corrado Barazzutti told The Associated Press. ''It's been one accomplishment after another. It's a group of girls in which all four developed into champions.''

Italian Tennis Federation President Angelo Binaghi pointed out how some of the Fed Cup victories were played down because Italy beat U.S. squads that did not feature the Williams sisters.

But Italy recently overcame that challenge, too, beating a U.S. squad led by Serena Williams in Pennetta's hometown of Brindisi earlier this year.

Still, none of that seemed to make anyone believe Vinci would beat Williams in Friday's semifinals. Yet the unseeded player did, coming back from a set down to deny the more powerful American a calendar-year Grand Slam at her home major.

That came soon after Pennetta had made quick work of second-ranked Simona Halep in the first semifinal.

It will be the first Grand Slam final for both Vinci and Pennetta, childhood rivals from the same region in southern Italy - Puglia, the heel of the boot-shaped peninsula.

''The compliments go to the girls, their staff and their families. We're just fortunate spectators and travelers in this magnificent flight that the girls have been on since 2006,'' Binaghi told The AP.

''For us it's double pride. We've beaten the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world,'' Binaghi added. ''We beat the best player in tennis history. It's crazy - that's the only word you can use to describe it.''

Binaghi was flying to New York for the final with Italian Premier Matteo Renzi and Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago.

News of the all-Italian final topped the morning headlines in Italy - above those concerning the migrant crisis in Europe and the usual soccer madness.

A free digital TV channel picked up rights to show the final in Italy, with the tournament previously only having been available on Eurosport via the Sky pay-satellite service.

Giant video screens were being set up in both players' hometowns to watch the match.

''It's one of the most extraordinary results in the history of Italian sport,'' a front-page editorial in the Gazzetta dello Sport said.

Binaghi first saw Vinci and Pennetta play as adolescents when he coached Anna Floris, a Sardinian player, who competed against them - and often won. Pennetta is now 33 and Vinci is 32 - advanced ages for tennis players - and enjoying career peaks.

''They've come a long way - to a point where neither of them could have imagined,'' Binaghi said.

So who will win the final?

''It's impossible to make a prediction,'' Barazzutti said. ''They've known each other nearly their entire lives. It's probably going to be a very nervous match.

''I'm just happy that an Italian will win the U.S. Open,'' Barazzutti added. ''That's already enough for me.''

For his part, Binaghi wanted to send a message to the Big Apple.

''If there's one thing wrong in New York today it's Little Italy,'' he said. ''Call it Big Italy today. ... I'm sure there's a party there. They should be full of pride.''

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Andrew Dampf can be followed at www.twitter.com/asdampf

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