Serena declares clay her ‘favourite surface’

"Actually clay is my favourite surface," Serena Williams said Friday as she prepared to lead the United States against Italy in the Fed Cup playoffs. (Michel Spingler/AP)

BRINDISI, Italy — Having learned to play on rock-hard cement in Compton, California, Serena Williams could easily be excused if she didn’t like the slow, red clay courts of Europe.

After all, Williams has won only two her 19 Grand Slam titles on clay.

For a variety of reasons, though, at this point in her career the top-ranked player has a special affinity for the dusty courts derived from crushed red brick.

"Actually clay is my favourite surface," Williams said Friday as she prepared to lead the United States against Italy in the Fed Cup playoffs. "I just so feel so relaxed and I don’t feel I have to rush. Sometimes you have extra time to get balls."

The only blemish on Williams' 18-0 record this year came when she withdrew before the Indian Wells semifinals last month with a knee injury. She opened the year by winning the Australian Open and took another hard-court trophy in Miami this month, in dominating fashion.

This weekend's matches should help her prepare for upcoming clay tournaments in Madrid, Rome, and of course Paris -- at the French Open.

"My clay-court game feels great," Williams said. "After Miami I immediately started working out because clay-court season is right there. So I've been practicing and getting ready for this."

Williams opens the best-of-five series against 36th-ranked Camila Giorgi on Saturday.

Williams beat Giorgi in straight sets in their only previous meeting two years ago. Giorgi, however, showed solid form by reaching the final of an indoor hard-court tournament in Katowice, Poland, last week.

"For someone who doesn't look that big (Giorgi) is very strong and she blasts the ball," U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez said. "So it will be an interesting matchup.

"(Giorgi) goes for it," Fernandez added. "We played against her last year in Cleveland and she totally blew Madison (Keys) out of the water. So we know her capability."

Italy captain Corrado Barazzutti made a surprise move by inserting Giorgi as his second singles player in place of the more experienced Flavia Pennetta, who is ranked 10 spots above Giorgi and was counting on strong crowd support because she is from Brindisi.

In the second singles match, 57th-ranked Lauren Davis will meet No. 15 Sara Errani.

"These are the decisions which I thought were best for the first day," Barazzutti said. "They could be changed for the second day."

After Sunday's reverse singles, the series could be decided by a doubles match.

The doubles teams named were Christina McHale and Alison Riske against Karin Knapp and Pennetta. Fernandez, however, has said that Williams will play doubles if the series is even.

"If I'm playing one, two, three, or four matches it doesn't matter," Williams said.

Italy and the United States have met four times in the last six years, including back-to-back finals in 2009 and 2010. The Italians won all four of those recent encounters but the Americans still lead the career series 9-4.

"They're all tough," Fernandez said. "There's not one match that you say, 'OK, love that one.' Because they can pretty much do it all. So you just have to approach it and try to get those three wins any which way you can. It's a challenge. There's no question about it."

The winner returns to the World Group next year while the loser will drop down to World Group II.