Italy close in on fourth Fed Cup title against Russia
Italy's Roberta Vinci celebrates a point against Russia's Alexandra Panova during their International Tennis Federation Fed Cup final match between Italy and Russia in Cagliari on November 2, 2013
Roberta Vinci gave Italy, the champions in 2006, 2009 and 2010, the first point with a hard-fought 5-7, 7-5, 8-6 victory over Alexandra Panova, the world number 136 making her debut in the tournament.
World number seven Sara Errani then breezed past teenager Irina Khromachava, ranked 236 in the world, 6-1, 6-4 to give the hosts a 2-0 lead ahead of Sunday's reverse singles and doubles.
Four-time champions Russia went into the final missing the injured Maria Sharapova while fellow top-30 players Maria Kirilenko, Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova opted instead to chase points and prize money at the WTA Tournament of Champions in Sofia.
That left Panova, only the 12th best player in her country and without a win on the main tour since February, as Russia's top player.
"When I played aggressively, it was much better. At the end, it was important to get the win," said Vinci after her three-hour 13-minute encounter.
Vinci had the partisan crowd on their feet after racing to a 4-0 lead on the slow red clay of the Cagliari tennis club.
However, the 30-year-old Italian, ranked 13th in the world, was stunned by an impressive fightback from her younger opponent who claimed the first set, 7-5.
Vinci was trailing 5-3 in the second set but was helped enormously when Panova committed a series of unforced errors.
The Italian served to reduce the arrears to 5-4 and dug deep in the next game, forcing more errors to break serve and draw level before gaining momentum and finally taking the second set 7-5.
In the deciding set, Vinci launched another spirited fightback, drawing level at 5-5 and took the next game to love.
Panova dug deep on serve to pull level at 6-6 before Vinci took a 7-6 lead when she lobbed the Russian who had made a naive dash to the net before sealing the match when Panova's nerves got the better of her in the final game.
Errani had few problems against Khromacheva, also making her first Fed Cup appearance, wrapping up her win in just 85 minutes.
Khromacheva had been preferred to Alisa Kleybanova, the only Russian player with Fed Cup experience, by team captain Shamil Tarpichev.
"She is young and has a lot of talent. It's never easy to play against someone you do not know," Errani told RaiSport1.
Errani will have the chance to seal the tie on Sunday when she faces Panova in the first of the reverse singles.
Vinci is due to meet Khromacheva before the final concludes with a doubles rubber between Flavia Pennetta and Karin Knapp and Kleybanova and Margarita Gasparyan.