CAGLIARI, Italy -- Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani struggled but prevailed in the opening singles against Russian debutants to put Italy on the brink of a fourth Fed Cup title on Saturday.
Vinci, the winner of nine WTA singles titles, overcame a surprisingly tough challenge from Alexandra Panova, who reached a WTA final once. Vinci rallied from 5-2 down in the second set and saved four match points to win 5-7, 7-5, 8-6 in 3 hours, 13 minutes.
"It was an incredible match, was a tough match," Vinci said. "At the end I had a little bit of cramp but I won a great match. There was a lot of ups and downs and I tried to stay focused on every single point. It wasn't easy.
"At the end she got a little bit tired. It was her first time (in Fed Cup) so probably there was a bit of nerves. I won and I'm happy. I had a great season but I think this is a fantastic win. I love to play Fed Cup and this was an important match, incredible for me."
Errani, playing in her second Fed Cup final, suffered somewhat in the second set before defeating Irina Khromacheva, also making her cup debut in the final, 6-1, 6-4.
Russia has won the tournament four times in the past 10 years but has travelled to Italy without any of its top players, with some of them injured and some instead playing in the Tournament of Champions in Bulgaria.
Italy needs one more victory on Sunday to add to its Fed Cup titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010. Errani takes on Panova in the first of the reverse singles.
"I dropped a bit in the second, I was very tired, maybe from Vinci's match," Errani said. "Also the weather at night is a bit more heavy so it was not easy for me but I'm very happy to have won this point.
"I can play much better, of course. There's a lot of tension. It's never easy to play in Fed Cup especially when you're the favourite like this."
Russia's youngsters showed they'd come to play when Panova brushed off an early break to win the first set with a love game. Panova continued to dominate and held three match points at 5-2 in the second set. But with teammates Flavia Pennetta and Karin Knapp furiously urging her on, Vinci managed to avoid being broken for a sixth successive time.
That sparked the turnaround, as the Italian won the next seven games.
But Panova again fought back and had another match point at 5-4 in the final set but hit a backhand wide.
Vinci wasted her first match point when she hit a forehand long but secured the victory when Panova put a backhand volley wide, leaving the Italian in tears of joy.
"The match is definitely up there in my top three," Panova said. "I had a couple of similar matches that were important and close and long and very tiring.
"My serve wasn't with me today because I had a very low percentage of first serves and only one ace. So I had to play every point in a rally and that's not what I usually do. I'm not very happy with my serve and I was losing my serve when I was serving for the match and during the set."
Seventh-ranked Errani won the opening set comfortably but No. 236 Khromacheva seemed to grow in confidence and earned her first break in their match when Errani lobbed long after three delightful drop shot winners from the Russian.
But Khromacheva failed to hold her service game and, although she broke again, a double fault handed Errani another break.
From that point, Errani cruised, winning the next three games and sealing the match with a powerful forehand.