PARIS: Three-time winners Italy edged a weakened United States 3-2 on Sunday to reach the Fed Cup semi-finals and an April date with double defending champions, the Czech Republic.
Italy, the champions in 2006, 2009 and 2010, needed top-ranked world doubles pair Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani to see them through on the clay courts of Rimini, winning 6-2, 6-2 against Liezel Huber and Varvara Lepchenko.
Earlier, Lepchenko, the world number 21 and making her Fed Cup debut in the absence of Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, stunned Errani, the world number seven, 7-5, 6-2 to give the US a surprise 2-1 lead.
But Vinci then levelled the World Group first round tie with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 triumph over Jamie Hampton.
Vinci also improved her perfect record in Fed Cup doubles to 18-0 - the best doubles record in the history of the tournament.
"They (Vinci and Errani) are the weapon. They're like sisters and best friends, they can read each other's body language," Huber told fedcup.com.
"That's why they're No. 1 and think they'll be that for many years to come. I really enjoy watching them play, but not against me."
Petra Kvitova, the world number eight, led holders Czech Republic into the semi-finals by winning the crucial third rubber against Australia in Ostrava when she saved a match point in beating Samantha Stosur 2-6, 7-6 (7/3), 6-4.
The Czechs, bidding to become the first country in 18 years to win three successive Fed Cup titles, eventually wrapped up the tie 4-0 when Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka beat Australian Open finalists Casey Dellacqua and 16-year-old Ashleigh Barty 6-0, 7-6 (7/1) in the doubles.
"I'm really happy. I think it was one of my best matches this season," said 2011 Wimbledon champion Kvitova.
Stosur, the 2011 US Open winner, said she was also happy with the way she played despite the loss.
"I really don't think I did much wrong today, I think Petra played a very good match," she said.
Italy will host the semi-final against the Czechs on April 20-21 while Russia will welcome Slovakia.
Four-time winners Russia also went to the wire, coming back from 2-1 down to beat Japan 3-2 in Moscow when Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova cruised to a 6-2, 6-2 win over Ayumi Morita and Misaki Doi.
Russia and Japan had been locked 1-1 overnight before the Asian outsiders went 2-1 up when Morita defeated Vesnina, standing in for the unwell Maria Kirilenko, 6-4, 6-1.
Makarova then levelled at 2-2 by easing past veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-1, 6-1.
Date-Krumm, 42, who made her Fed Cup debut way back in 1989, said she had needed pain-killers to help ease an Achilles tendon injury. "In the morning when I was practicing, it was even difficult to walk," said the world 77.
"I took some pain-killers before the match and adrenaline helped me when I was on court. I tried my best, but it just wasn't enough."
Slovakia, the 2002 champions, will travel to Russia having knocked out 2012 runners-up Serbia in Belgrade.
After being level 1-1 overnight, Daniela Hantuchova defeated Vesna Dolonc 6-3, 6-2 after teenager Jana Cepelova outlasted Bojana Jovanovski 5-7, 7-5, 11-9 in a three hour 18-minute marathon.
"It was a very emotional match for me, we both fought hard and I came out on top after hanging in there when she appeared to be closer to the finish line," said Cepelova. - AFP