If the Canadian Billie Jean King Cup team ever had its best and brightest healthy, in form and ready to represent all at the same time, what a formidable force it would be.
But that has rarely happened.
And so US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, just 19, will lead the Canadian contingent at the Billie Jean King Cup finals, scheduled for Prague the first week of November.
Genie Bouchard, whose appearances had been sporadic in recent years, is rehabbing after shoulder surgery.
And top-ranked Canadian Bianca Andreescu has decided to take a pass.
The official quote from Andreescu:
“After careful consideration and consulting with my team, I have taken the decision to not play in the Billie Jean Cup Finals in November. I will attempt to finish these last few tournaments of the year in strong fashion, and then will focus on having a very good off-season training block in order to be fully prepared for the 2022 season. I will be playing the Billie Jean King Cup event next year and wish Team Canada all the best for this year’s edition!”
Andreescu: not since Feb. 2019
Andreescu last represented Canada in Feb. 2019, when she won both her singles matches against the Netherlands in a Group II quarterfinal.
She was on the team that lost to Switzerland early in 2020 – a rather optimistic selection since she was still dealing with the knee injury that ended up keeping her on the sidelines for all of 2020.
But she didn’t play.
Bouchard was also on that squad. But she injured her left wrist the day before the tie was to begin.
Andreescu was to lead the team last April against Serbia. But she injured her foot in the Miami Open final against Ashleigh Barty shortly before the tie. She had to retire, and subsequently pulled out of the Billie Jean Cup tie.
Understaffed team must step up
As much giddy publicity as Canadian tennis has received in the wake of Fernandez’s run to the US Open final (as well as Félix Auger-Aliassime’s semifinal effort on the men’s side), the squad that will head to Prague will have to be plucky and a little lucky.
In a pool group with France and the Russian Federation, it will field just one player ranked in the top 150 in singles.
In addition to Fernandez, who has always brought her best since she began representing Canada, the second singles player will be the resurgent Rebecca Marino.
Marino, 30, is playing the qualifying at Indian Wells this week and currently is ranked No. 157.
Also on the team is doubles stalwart Gabriela Dabrowski.
And in a blast from the past, the fourth and final member of the team (each country is allowed to nominate five) will be … Françoise Abanda.
Abanda returns after two-year absence
Abanda, still just 24, has dropped off the scene in a significant way during the pandemic.
She is currently ranked No. 341, and has played just four tournaments since the pandemic shut the Tour down in March, 2020.
Abanda didn’t return to the court until the end of Jan. 2021, when she played the qualifying at a $60K ITF in Rome, Georgia.
A few weeks later, the played the qualifying at a $25K ITF in Orlando, Florida.
Abanda suffered a pretty tough bout of COVID-19 last winter.
She didn’t return to play until August, when she received a wild card into the qualifying of the National Bank Open in Montreal. She gave Caroline Garcia a good battle, but lost in two close sets.
Abanda played her first main-draw match since the pandemic at the WTA 250 in Chicago, just before the US Open. Through Tennis Canada, she received a wild card into that event and defeated Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in the first round. She then lost 6-3, 6-2 to Kristina Mladenovic.
And she hasn’t played since.
Abanda, who has played well both at tournaments in Canada and representing her country, will be making her first BJK Cup appearance since Feb. 2019, when it was still called the Fed Cup.
Canada got a free pass to the final
The Canadians weren’t originally scheduled to play in the BJK Cup finals.
The revamped event had been announced for Budapest in 2020 with great fanfare for 2020. But the pandemic scuttled those plans.
It was switched at a late date this year to Prague. So the Hungarians are out as the wild card host nation.
As the highest-ranked winning nation out of last April’s playoffs, Canada, which defeated Serbia, was promoted to the finals.
Fernandez’s two victories in singles were the lynchpin of that victory over Serbia.
Captain Heidi el Tabakh absent
Also not on hand for the tournament will be captain Heidi el Tabakh.
El Tabakh’s wedding, which was postponed because of the pandemic, is happening next month.
Replacing her will be Tennis Canada’s “Head of women’s transition and pro tennis”, Sylvain Bruneau.
Bruneau was the longtime Fed Cup captain before el Tabakh. He also is Andreescu’s former personal coach.
France, Russia announce nominations
Canada’s opening tie will be against France, which won the last Fed Cup/Billie Jean King Cup final down in Australia in 2019.
The squad will be missing stalwart Kristina Mladenovic, who announced a few days ago she was ending her season.
Stepping up will be the Garcia, Alizé Cornet, Clara Burel and Fiona Ferro.
Russia will be even more formidable.
It will have its five top-ranked players on the team – all ranked inside the top 50.