Why won't any women step in to fill void?


The lives of Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, the twin anchors of the overachieving Italian Fed Cup squad, have suddenly gotten a lot more complicated. Venus and Serena Williams have "made themselves available" for the final of the premier women's international team competition, which the U.S. will host in November in San Diego.

Of course, this being the Williams sisters -- and "made themselves available" being a bizarre construct (it suggests that the Sisters Sledgehammer dragged themselves, kicking and screaming, to availability) -- the declaration guarantees nothing. All may not be lost for the Italians if either or both Williams sisters get to feeling a little sideways a week or two before the event and decide to take a pass. It has been known to happen.

In recent years, Italy has feasted while the Williams sisters fiddled and U.S. tennis burned. The Italians have won the event twice since 2006. Give them credit: Italy is one of only four nations to have competed in every Fed Cup competition, and the Schiavone/Pennetta-led teams have capitalized on their opportunities. This is something few Fed Cup teams and even fewer individual players on the WTA circuit have done.

With Venus and Serena playing so few tournaments, you'd think that the women who seem cast as also-rans in the Williams era would revel in their absence. But not a single one of them has consistently stepped up to take advantage of the situation. Dinara Safina has come the closest, with that great run she put together to snatch up the No. 1 ranking in 2009. But then the sisters reappeared to scare her off, and back problems took care of the rest. That 6-1, 6-0 beating Venus laid on Safina at Wimbledon in 2009 is just plain unforgettable.

But at least Safina found a way to lord it over all the other WTA pros, doing what mere mortals (which excludes Serena, if not Venus) must to achieve ultimate success. Safina was dedicated, focused, mature and consistent, at least until it came to Grand Slam finals. The same cannot be said for Safina's peers and fellow Williams sisters rivals.

Take Jelena Jankovic, who lost the other day in Cincinnati to Uzbekistan's Akgul Amanmuradova. The No. 1 ranking more or less fell into Jankovic's lap in the fall of 2008, and all she has done since then is tease her fans. If there's such a thing in the world of competition as a flirt, Jankovic is it: She promises endlessly, but always finds a way not to deliver.

Or Ana Ivanovic. She rose to No. 1 not long after she won the French Open in 2008, and has struggled ever since. At least with her, you sense that the pressure ate away her confidence. It's the kind of thing that can happen to anyone who finds herself in way over her head. Maybe she has to hit that proverbial rock bottom before she begins a rise back to the top -- or at least close to it.

How about Svetlana Kuznetsova? Any woman who has won two Grand Slam events has proved she can play this game. But just months ago, she was wallowing outside the top 20, all philosophical and interesting. Somebody needs to tell this woman that what's really interesting to tennis fans is players who win tennis matches.

Then there are youngsters like Victoria Azarenka. A few weeks ago, she won the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, then promptly pulled out of the Mercury Insurance Open in San Diego (which was played the following week), citing a sore shoulder. In her first tournament back, the ongoing Western and Southern Financial Group Women's Open in Cincinnati, she was sandbagged by ... a desperate Ana Ivanovic.

Maria Sharapova? OK, give her a pass because she has been struggling with a serious shoulder injury. At least she comes to play.

Fed Cup is a long way off, but at least we know the Italian women will compete. That's something you can't say for most of the women when it comes to regular tournament play these days.