RIMINI, Italy -- Italy beat the United States 3-2 to progress to the Fed Cup semifinals Sunday after Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci cruised to victory over Varvara Lepchenko and Liezel Huber in the decisive doubles match.
Errani and Vinci lived up to their billing as the top-ranked doubles pairing by winning 6-2, 6-2 in 1 hour, 11 minutes to eliminate the understrength American team.
"They both played a great match and Roberta did a couple of really exceptional shots at the net" Italy captain Corrado Barazzutti said. "I don't really say much to them when they play, they're the best, what can you say? I try not to bother them when they play, they know each other so well."
The U.S. led 2-1 after Lepchenko upset the seventh-ranked Errani in Sunday's first reverse singles match, 7-5, 6-2. But Vinci overcame Jamie Hampton 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 to take the best-of-five series to a decisive doubles.
The Americans were without Serena and Venus Williams, as well as Sloane Stephens, because of injuries, but still nearly pulled off the upset.
"I'm really proud of the team, they played their hearts out every single match," U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez said. "We knew it was going to be an uphill battle."
Italy will next host defending champion Czech Republic in a rematch of last year's semifinal.
Italy was a big favourite to earn a third straight victory over the U.S. after beating the Americans in successive Fed Cup finals in 2009 and '10.
However, a near-perfect display from Lepchenko put the U.S. ahead after an error-strewn performance from Errani.
Lepchenko raced into a 4-2 before Errani fought back to take a 5-4 advantage and serve for the set. But the 21st-ranked American broke again and took the next two games, securing the opening set when Errani hit a shot into the net.
Lepchenko quickly took a 4-1 lead in the second to earn a second straight victory on her Fed Cup debut, after beating Vinci in three sets on Saturday.
"It was a long match yesterday," Lepchenko said. "So I was up and down a bit, but once my body warmed up I started playing better and better, and then in the second set I got pumped and really got going. Clay is one of my favourit surfaces. I was born on clay, so I guess it comes to me naturally."
Vinci then kept Italy in the series, despite playing with a thigh injury she picked up during Saturday's loss. After inconsistent play in the first two sets, Vinci raced into a 5-0 lead in the third.
"It was an important third set that Jamie lost," Fernandez said. "We could have capitalized there but we didn't. But this is the closest we've come against the Italian team, and we were playing away.
"I'm really proud of everyone, how they handled the atmosphere ... there were a lot of new experiences and overall I think it's a positive experience."
Vinci played even better in the decisive match and was particularly effective at the net as she improved her record to 18-0 in Fed Cup doubles -- the best in the competition's history.
"It's maybe the best day of my career," Vinci said. "We really wanted it, we were very tired but today we managed to show a lot of heart, a lot of personality. We are a great team. I had to have various treatments and physiotherapy, massages almost until midnight. Yesterday was a horrible day and I'm glad I managed to come back today. "
Errani and Vinci won the doubles title at the Australian Open last month, their third victory in the last four Grand Slams, and they were in complete control against Lepchenko and Huber.
"Of course it's very disappointing today not to win, disappointing to lose again to them, that's what hurts the most," Huber said. "They (Vinci and Errani) are the weapon. They're like sisters and best friends, they can read each other's body language. That's why they're No. 1 and think they'll be that for many years to come. They both have different styles and they stick to that. I really enjoy watching them play, but not against me."