December 4, 2021

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Underdog Canada upsets France to open BJK Cup Finals

Team Canada wasn’t the team it could have been, should have been, with top-30 players Bianca Andreescu and Leylah Fernandez on board.

And Team France wasn’t the team it once was, when Kristina Mladenovic and Carolina Garcia were in the top 10. It wasn’t even the team it was two years ago when it went down to Perth, Australia and defeated the home Aussies in a dramatic tie that came down to the fifth doubles rubber.

Captains Sylvain Bruneau and Julien Benneteau could only do their best with that they did have available.

So the question marks on both sides made this opening tie in the new-look Billie Jean King Cup finals a most intriguing one.

In the end, Canada maximized – doing just about everything right in upsetting the defending champions 2-1.

The doubles decides it

It came down to the deciding third rubber, a doubles match.

And after so many years of waiting around all weekend only to play a dead doubles rubber when the outcome was already decided, Canadian doubles star Gabriela Dabrowski had an opportunity to shine.

Dabrowski and Rebecca Marino defeated Alizé Cornet and BJK Cup rookie Clara Burel 6-3, 7-6 (5) to clinch the first of Canada’s two group ties.

Earlier, Françoise Abanda, ranked No. 353 and having almost no tennis in her since the start of the pandemic, was the steadier player on the court in defeating Fiona Ferro 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to open proceedings.

With the tie on her racquet, No. 1 Marino – ranked No. 148 but tasked with leading the under-womaned squad – fell to the vastly experienced and higher-ranked Alizé Cornet 6-4, 7-6 (5).

That left the nations tied at 1-1, until Canada came through in the doubles.

“As good as it gets”

“Françoise played a really good match and a tough match. It was great tennis from her. And then Rebecca, two very good matches. She was not able to get the winning singles, but played still very good level and in the doubles, Super performance. And I think Gabriela was amazing in the doubles – unbelievable performance,” captain Sylvain Bruneau said. “It’s a great, great win for us. As good as it gets. And this is the beauty of playing for your country in a team event. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of emotions.”

Bruneau, the longtime former captain who is stepping in this week in place of the soon-to-be-wed Heidi El Tabakh, said he was surprised to see Ferro come out at No. 2 for France. He assumed there were reasons, but didn’t know what they were.

The 24-year-old, issued from the same junior class as Abanda, has dropped out of the top 100 from a career high of No. 39 back in March.

On the French depth chart for the tie – such as it is – she was the lowest-ranked of all the options. Veteran Caroline Garcia and Burel are well ahead of her in the rankings.

But it appears fairly clear that Garcia isn’t 100 per cent physically, with a knee issue that has been troubling her since before the US Open.

Inexperience and nerves for Ferro

(Screenshot: ITF livestream)

Ferro had played BJK Cup just once before – in 2019, in doubles in a dead rubber after France had already clinched against Belgium. And she lost, with partner Pauline Parmentier.

With Burel, it appeared to be Benneteau’s plan to break her in with a doubles match. No one could have predicted that it would be the decider. But she acquitted herself very well; indeed, for periods she was the steadiest player on court.

But Ferro was the choice for singles.

She could rarely get things right tactically. And her nerves were evident even after winning the first set.

“Maybe at a certain point a few things caught up with her. I wasn’t able to get her through that, wasn’t able to find the solution with her to get out of it – even though there was room to get out of it,” Benneteau said. “It was my fault as much as hers. But she has been through situations like that on Tour. She’s experienced them before, and she will again. Clearly, though, I wasn’t able to help her get through it.”

Abanda big in the big occasions

Despite so little match play, Abanda was able to tap into what she often produces in the higher-octane occasions – playing for her country, and playing at home at the National Bank Open.

It wasn’t home – and there were scarcely 100 people in the stands at the O2 Arena in Prague at the start of the match. But she held steady, heard the Canadian supporters cheering her on, and waited for her opportunity.

(Screenshot: ITF livestream)

It came, and she made the most of it. As she so often does. And she just as often is asked why.

“Maybe we should have on-court coaching? Maybe? It’s tough to say but for sure, having a coach that is on court telling you what to do helps. And he’s also pushing you. So I think it helps and then having the whole staff, physio, trainer and massage therapists. It brings a lot of things for you to perform well,” Abanda said.

Meaningful match for Dabrowski

Dabrowski, currently ranked a career-high No. 5 in doubles, lost her doubles partner and good friend Luisa Stefani to a bad knee injury suffered on court in the US Open semifinals. Just when she appeared to have finally found the right fit.

The two even qualified for the WTA FInals in Guadalajara next week. But with Stefani out until some time in 2022, she will have to miss it.

(Photo: ITF/Paul Zimmer)

So this week is her season finale. And she came out absolutely on fire.

“I think that was that was a really cool situation to be in (to have the doubles be a deciding match). And so I tried to make the most of it. And then playing with Rebecca is great. We played a couple years ago in the Netherlands and even though we’d already won the tie 3-0, it was so much fun,” Dabrowski said. “And honestly I remember thinking to myself after we won that match, it felt like I’d like won a Grand Slam. It was such a good atmosphere, and such good vibes on the court.

“So I think I carried that with me a little bit today into our doubles. And yeah, luckily we didn’t disappoint.”

Next up: Russia

The second and final group tie for Canada will be Tuesday, against Russia.

Oops, make that the “Russian Tennis Federation”, as they’re being referred to in Prague.

That’s a big level up – the Russian team is stacked.

They brought their very best: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daria Kasatkina, Veronika Kudermetova, Ekaterina Alexandrova and Liudmila Samsonova – all ranked in the top 40 in singles.

Kudermetova has posted some excellent results in doubles. And Pavlyuchenkova, while she hasn’t played much doubles this year as her singles career has rocketed, is a former multiple junior Grand Slam doubles title winner, and a former WTA No. 21 with five career titles.

Any combination of the above will be favored against the Canadians.

But it’s BJK Cup. You never know.