Brindisi - Top-ranked Serena Williams had to fight back from a set down and figure out how to deal with strong winds before overcoming Italy's Sara Errani 4-6, 7-6 (7/3), 6-3 in a Fed Cup playoff on Sunday.
Brindisi-born Flavia Pennetta then got the home crowd back into it by evening the best-of-five series with the United States at 2-2 by routing 65th-ranked Christina McHale 6-1, 6-1.
In the decisive doubles match, Williams was expected to pair with Alison Riske against Errani and Pennetta.
While Williams held a massive 70-7 lead in winners against Errani, she committed nearly three times as many unforced errors as her 15th-ranked opponent.
Until the very end, Williams struggled to dictate play against someone who had never before presented her with serious problems.
"I don't think I ever really got the hang of it," Williams said. "I really struggled today in the wind, on both sides. I don't know what side was worse for me. Usually I'm able to adjust and it's a little disappointing that I wasn't able to adjust sooner.
"Today has been a big eye opener," Williams added. "I need to go home and really train. I'm totally not as ready for clay-court season as I thought I was. ... Next time I'll be really, really ready and I'll know what to expect. Now I'm in the mindset of, 'You know what, I'm not on hard court.' I'm playing like I'm on hard court and I'm not. So I have to play and be ready to hit a thousand shots if necessary."
Still, Williams improved to 20-0 this year and 16-0 in Fed Cup for her career.
Williams entered with a 7-0 career edge over Errani and had lost a total of four games in their previous two meetings. She usually dominates Errani by taking advantage of the Italian's weak serve but the wind prevented her from stepping too far into the court.
The Circolo Tennis Brindisi is located next to the southern city's port and a sharp breeze was blowing off the bay.
Williams and Errani often had to catch their tosses and start their service motions over again, or delay play when the wind whipped clay into their eyes between points.
"The wind helped me," Errani said. "Against a player like her it favored me."
Already in the first three games of the match, Williams committed nine unforced errors as Errani played her usual defensive game and just tried to keep the rallies going.
With the sold out crowd of 4 000 chanting her first name, Errani served for the match at 5-4 in the second set but Williams played solidly and then the American surged to a 6-1 lead in the tiebreaker and pushed it to a third.
There were four consecutive breaks of serve to open the third set and it was tied 3-3 before Williams finally surged ahead and won the final three games, closing it out at love in the last game on her first match point.
"It's a shame. I was so close. It was just a matter of a few points," Errani said. "But in the end, she created the difference."
The winning team returns to the World Group and can compete for the Fed Cup trophy next year while the loser will be relegated to World Group II.