There has been much consternation and wringing of hands on the state of Canadian tennis in 2023.
Much of it is the consequence of the bar having been raised very high, perhaps too high and certainly too prematurely.
The reality of the ups and downs of a tennis career then simultaneously set in on multiple levels and Canadian tennis fans have suffered along with Bianca Andreescu, Denis Shapovalov, Leylah Fernandez and Félix Auger-Aliassime.
Those concerns haven’t been assuaged.
But on Sunday, it was a great, great day for Canadian tennis, eh?
(All screenshots from WTA.TV, except where indicated)
Dabrowski and Routliffe off to Cancún
The first big moment came shortly before 6:30 a.m. ET when Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski and Montreal’s Erin Routliffe – a Kiwi by birth and representation, but a Canadian through and through – capped off the first two months of the new partnership in spectacular fashion in Zhengzhou, China.
They took the doubles title at the Zhengzhou Open, beating No. 3 seeds Ena Shibahara and Shuko Aoyama in impressive fashion 6-2, 6-4.
Putting aside the points, the title – their second, after the surprise win at the US Open – and the prize money, the victory assured the Cana-Kiwi team of qualifying for the WTA Finals later this month.
They did it playing just seven tournaments together. And they did it after losing their opening matches at both of their previous stops on the Asian swing in Tokyo and Beijing.
That left 1,500 potential ranking points on the table. And it wasn’t looking that great.
But they ran through the field in Zhengzhou with the loss of only one set.
And no matter what happens in the last week of the season, they’re in.
“We are incredibly pleased with our performance this entire week. We worked really really hard to prepare well after a couple of tough tournaments in Beijing and Tokyo,” Dabrowski said during the on-court presentation.
Dabrowski has now made the WTA Finals with three different partners – three times with Xu Yifan, once with Giuliana Olmos and now with Routliffe. She might well have made it a fourth time in 2021 with former partner Luisa Stefani, save for Stefani’s horrific knee injury suffered in the semifinals at the US Open that year.
Fernandez wins third career title in Hong Kong
For Leylah Fernandez, it’s been a rough 2023, and a bumpy road since her trip to the US Open final in 2021.
She’s dealt with the yips on her service toss, off and on. She has wrestled with the type of player she needs to be to be successful. With her ranking dropping – at one point, nearly out of the top 100 – she had to navigate extremely difficult draws, sometimes even in qualifying.
But in Hong Kong, she caught a great break – and ran it all the way to the title.
Fernandez was beaten by Germany’s Eva Lys in the first round of qualifying at the WTA 1000 in Beijing. Then she moved to Hong Kong and drew No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka in the first round.
Azarenka was flat-out outplaying her. But then, the Belarussian came up with a leg injury that hampered her through a second set that Fernandez eventually won. And after that, Azarenka pulled the plug.
Bad break for Azarenka; great break for Fernandez. But still there wasn’t any indication that she would go on the kind of run she did.
Fernandez came up against 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva, who has had a spectacular rise this year. And she came back from a set down to defeat her. Then she ran into another teenager, 18-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova, and took care of her.
In the semifinals, Fernandez continued her run of form against No. 5 Anna Blinkova.
And in Sunday’s final, against fellow unseeded player Katerina Siniakova, she survived a major battle.
Siniakova was on fire in the first set, while Fernandez came out a little flat and had trouble getting her game organized. But the Czech had an issue with her upper left leg, which she had been shaking out in the second set and left the court to have taped when she was down 0-3.
She started going for more winners, and that second set turned into a dogfight before Fernandez finally pulled it off. The Canadian got off to a lead in the third, during which Siniakova took an awkward fall and had to have her right upper leg taped. But she turned away the challenge and after nearly three hours on a hot, humid evening, won her first title in 19 months.
It is the third of her career, and the first that didn’t happen in Monterrey, Mexico.
“I want to thank my team. We had a very very hard past couple of years. And my family, my parents, my coach, my performance coaches have stayed by my side and gotten me through those tough times. The hard work is paying off.,” said Fernandez, whose father/coach Jorge was not in the house.
Jamais Deux sans Trois
A little later on, Montrealer Gabriel Diallo looked to win the biggest title of his career, at a big Challenger indoors in Bratislava, Slovakia.
As with Dabrowski and Routliffe, and Fernandez, the 22-year-old hadn’t done much on his current swing. He’d been impressive in securing a spot in the Davis Cup final for Canada in Spain. But then he lost in the first round – both times in three sets – at Challengers in Orléans and Mouilleron le Captif, France.
In Bratislava, he found his groove.
Diallo upset former US Open champion Dominic Thiem in the second round – in a third-set tiebreak.
In the quarterfinals, he was inches away from losing to local favorite Lukas Klein, only to come back and win it in three.
In the semifinals, he took care of big-serving American lefty Martin Damm, 20.
And in the final, he defeated 30-year-old Belgian Joris de Loore 6-0, 7-5.
“When I played against Dominic Thiem, who is from neighboring Austria, and in the next round against local Lukáš Klein, the spectators were on their side. However, since the semi-final duel, I felt a lot of support from the fans, which gave me a lot of strength and self-confidence. I am really grateful to them,” Diallo said. (note: this was translated from English to Slovak for the website, and then back into English via Google Translate. So it may not be EXACTLY what Diallo originally said).
Diallo won the Granby Challenger in 2022. But this one, with €145,000 in prize money and 125 ranking points to the winner, was a much bigger accomplishment.
Rankings on the Come-up
For Fernandez, the victory moves her up 17 spots, to No. 43 in the world.
That’s a long way from where she was just a few months ago.
For Routliffe, the win means a new career high doubles ranking of No. 13.
With Dabrowski at No. 9 and Fernandez at No. 19 on Monday, that means three Canadians (or Kiwi-Canadians) are ranked in the top 20 in women’s doubles.
For Diallo, the victory means he edges into a new career high ranking of No. 130 on Monday.
And there’s still a fair bit of season to look forward to, before the Davis Cup finals cap it off.
Looking ahead to Cancún
Dabrowski and Routliffe, and Fernandez, are in the doubles and singles draws in Nanchang, which is the final stop on the Asian swing.
The doubles pair hadn’t entered originally, but with their spot in Cancún still in doubt before Sunday’s final, they did a late “on-site” entry and are the top seeds in the tournament.
Fernandez had entered in singles; she drew wild card Guo Hanyu in the first round.
We’ll see if any or all of them actually play; the doubles kids no longer need the points to qualify for Cancun. And Fernandez had a pretty gruelling week in the heat and humidity.
She will have the BJK Cup finals still on the horizon. And there remains an excellent change she and partner Taylor Townsend will join Routliffe and Dabrowski in Cancún.
All eyes on Zvonareva and Siegemund
Fernandez and Townsend were clear at the US Open that if they qualified for the WTA Finals, they’d be there. But the last couple of months of their season was going to be focused on singles.
Indeed, with a singles ranking around No. 100, Townsend opted to stay in the U.S. and play high-level ITFs, instead of undertaking the major expenses of going to Asia and ended up risking it every week in the qualifying.
As Monday rolls around, they stand at No. 8 – nearly 200 points ahead of Zvonareva and Siegemund, who lost the US Open final to Dabrowski and Routliffe.
The Russian-German pair are the No. 2 seeds in Nanchang, which is a WTA 250 event.
But if they want to squeeze out Fernandez and Townsend and grab that final spot, leaving Townsend and Fernandez as potential alternates, they’ll have to win the tournament.
Even making the final would leave them three little points short.
Both are also playing singles in Nanchang.
While it would be a perfect script for Dabrowski and Routliffe to play in Nanchang, get to the final – and defeat Zvonareva and Siegemund there to deny them the spot and award it to their countrywoman, life tends to be unscripted.
But we’ll have our eye on those two this week.