The underdog Canadian team presented by Sobeys at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Prague tasted success Monday, scoring a 2-1 victory over defending champion France thanks to an inspired singles win by Françoise Abanda and a dominating doubles performance by Gabriela Dabrowski and Rebecca Marino.
That sets up the Canadian side’s second tie in Group A round-robin play – against the Russian Tennis Federation on Tuesday – and an opportunity to advance to the semi-finals with a win.
Abanda, 24, got a good day rolling with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Fiona Ferro in the opening match. The 24-year-old Frenchwoman, ranked No. 105, was a surprise nomination by captain Julien Benneteau in place of the higher-ranked (No. 75) and more experienced Caroline Garcia. “It was my choice and the staff,” Benneteau said vis a vis Garcia, “and the situation (poor form and injury) of Caroline for a few weeks now.”
The first set on Monday was hotly-contested before Ferro broke serve in the final game with a forehand drop-shot winner on her second set point. That cheeky shot allowed her to finish the set with a flourish and then quickly grab a 2-0 lead in the second.
Things looked fairly dire for the No. 353-ranked Abanda but she had been competitive throughout and gradually gained control, breaking back in the third game and then again in the fifth, taking the set after saving a break point serving for a 5-3 lead.
She was doing the heavier hitting and gradually wore down Ferro, who was playing her first BJK Cup singles match.
The French Tennis Federation website put it neatly, writing, “the third set revealed Fiona’s crispation (crisping or getting nervous) at the same time that her opponent began to swing freely. More aggressive, Abanda took the lead 3-1. Battling and listening to her captain, Ferro did her best but was unable to reverse the fateful spiral. There were too many unforced errors on important points.”
Abanda, who won her fifth consecutive BJK Cup singles rubber dating back to a tie against Slovakia in 2016, explained in a Sportsnet interview, “Sylvain (Bruneau) the captain was telling me to go for my shots and I could see that Fiona was feeling it out there. So I was just like ‘stay in the match, stay with it.’ (I’m) very pleased with my performance. I didn’t play much this year so going in I didn’t know what to expect – so very glad I was able to get the victory for Canada.”
She has only played five tournaments since February and in her last one – an $80,000 ITF event in Macon, Georgia, in October – she lost to a woman with the lowest possible WTA ranking (No. 9999), mostly doubles player Alana Smith of the U.S., 3-6, 6-2, 10-8. But it’s well known that, as Bruneau put it, “Françoise loves the spotlight. She rises to the occasion.”
After her victory on Monday on the Centre Court in the O2 Arena, Bruneau said, “she has actually played very little this year so I find it good that she was able to come here, in an important match against a good player, and play that level without many matches under her belt. I was mostly surprised physically because there were a lot of good rallies, side-to-side, a lot of moving, and I was surprised that even by the end of the third set she looked sharp and was moving well.”
Marino followed Abanda onto Centre Court and quickly took a 2-0 lead on the French team’s No. 1, No. 59-ranked Alizé Cornet. But the 31-year-old Frenchwoman soon broke back twice and wrapped up the first set in 43 minutes.
The second set was more of the same, with Cornet ahead 3-1 before Marino found her range. She broke serve to level at 3-all and from there was full-fore, even-footing with Cornet.
In the eventual tiebreak, Marino had a 4-1 lead and was up 5-4 when Cornet hit a cleverly-timed, drop-shot winner and then won the match as Marino made two forehand unforced errors – final score 6-4, 7-6(5).
“I’m really proud of the way I played today, even if I came out with a loss,” Marino said. “I feel I brought my level and showed I was right there with Alizé. It was just a matter of a couple of points here and there. Going into tomorrow with Russia, I’m going to try to hold that feeling of knowing that I belong on the court with these girls that are top-100, top-50 – just have that belief because I know my game is there.”
Marino, ranked No. 148, was able to pound away from the back of the court, holding her own in the second set on both wings – forehand and backhand – with Cornet. The one disappointment would be her serving. She made only 51 per cent of her first serves, winning 69 per cent of them but just 47 per cent on her second serves.
For Marino, the best was yet to come as she combined with Dabrowski for a 6-3, 7-6(6) victory over Cornet and BJK Cup debutante, 20-year-old Clara Burel, in the deciding doubles match.
Dabrowski, playing in her 16th BJK Cup tie dating back to 2013, ranks No. 5 in the world in doubles and it was no surprise when she took over the first set by being super active at the net. She and Marino basically gave a clinic to the French pair but the dynamic changed in the second as Cornet and Burel stepped up and made things more competitive. They broke serve to lead 4-2 and Cornet served for the set at 5-3 only to have the Canadians elevate and break.
Things got decidedly whacky in the tiebreak as from two-all to six-all there were eight consecutive mini-breaks – that included the Canadians saving a set point at 5-6 when Dabrowski hit a spectacular, whirl-around overhead after chasing back after a lob. From there, the match ended appropriately – with a Dabrowski volley winner and a Burel volley into the net on the final two points.
Dabrowski and Marino embraced, celebrating a victory for Canada that went against the grain of almost all pre-tie predictions.
“Playing with Rebecca is great,” Dabrowski said. “We played a couple of years ago in the Netherlands and we had a great doubles match even though we had won the tie 3-0 and played a dead-rubber doubles. But it was so much fun. Honestly, I remember thinking to myself, like after we won that match, it felt like I’d won a Grand Slam. It was such a good atmosphere and such good vibes on the court. I think I carried that a little bit with me today into our doubles. Luckily we didn’t disappoint.”
The challenge for Canada now will be Russians, the only team in Prague that can choose from five top-50 players – No. 12 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, No. 28 Daria Kasatkina, No. 31 Veronica Kudermetova, No. 32 Ekaterina Alexandrova and No. 40 Ludmilla Samsonova.
After a rewarding first day, Bruneau, the former but now interim captain as Heidi el Tabakh is away getting ready for her wedding, acknowledged the work that captain el Tabakh and coach Nathalie Tauziat have done in the three years since he left to coach Bianca Andreescu.
“(The players) are super good – easy in practice,” he said getting into specifics. “They work hard. It’s a lot of fun. I really, really like representing Canada actually as a coach I don’t think I would be able to work with non-Canadian players. It’s a great feeling overall.”
As with Monday, Tuesday’s second (and final) Group A round-robin match for Canada, against the Russian Tennis Federation, will start at 10:30 a.m. Prague time (5:30 a.m. ET in Canada) and be carried in English on Sportsnet and in French on TVA Sports.
Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak