It might not have been the biggest upset in Billie Jean King Cup history. But Canada sweeping Spain, on their home turf, in the first tie of the group stages was an impressive feat of maximizing assets.
And each effort, in each of the three wins, was impressive in its own unique way.
The 3-0 victory featured an impressive debut by a late callup as 18-year-old Marina Stakusic swept away the world No. 65, Rebeka Masarova, to get Canada off to an optimal start.
And then, a resurgent Leylah Fernandez – who finished the year in encouraging fashion after months of struggles – showed why she’s the most money performer for Canada right now. Her 7-6 (8), 7-6 (7) grind over Sara Sorribes Tormo that took nearly three hours and showed impressive resilience, after the 21-year-old had been off the courts for several weeks.
That gave Canada a 2-0 lead; the tie was completed with a reunion featuring a jet-lagged Gabriela Dabrowski and a rusty Genie Bouchard, who defeated Masarova and Sorribes Tormo 6-2, 7-5.
Spain not vintage, and not at full strength
The host country had all hands on deck, its five highest-ranked players in the lineup.
But this is not vintage Spain on that score.
Paula Badosa, who was the No. 2 player in the world just 18 months ago, was technically present and ready for the photo ops. But she was unlikely to play after being out since Wimbledon with a stress fracture in her back.
No. 1 Sorribes Tormo has experience, but No. 2 Masarova was making her singles debut in most challenging circumstances.
The thing is, Canada was even more bereft.
Two of top three missing
It was without two of its top three players, with Bianca Andreescu doing … whatever she’s doing while nursing a reported back injury. No. 3 Katherine Sebov, who has dealt with some injury niggles much of the year, told Open Court she needed to prioritize trying to play tournaments this last part of the year to get more matches, rather than (likely) sit on the bench in Spain.
(As it turns out, she might well not have sat. But hindsight is 20/20).
And No. 4 Rebecca Marino did not get the call on Wednesday.
So it was up to the rookie Stakusic to make her debut – an outwardly nerveless, confident destruction of the world No. 65 that was as comprehensive as it was unexpected.
“This is such a special feeling and makes me believe that I belong here. It is also super special to win in front of all the Canadians who I have worked with for a long time. What a feeling – it is the most meaningful win for me so far – and it will give me so much confidence going forwar,” Stakusic told the BJK Cup website.
As for Fernandez, it was no surprise that she battled. The court looked rather slow, made to measure for Sorribes Tormo’s grinding, exhausting game. There were plenty of ups and downs. But it was vintage Fernandez, who came up aces at the right time.
“It was nerve-racking. I probably had a couple of minor heart attacks myself, but it was an exciting match and fun to play,” she told the BJK Cup website.
Not only that, she exhausted Sorribes Tormo, who had to come right back and play doubles to try to salvage a rubber for her country and didn’t have much left to give.
A Bouchard-Dabrowski reunion
Had Fernandez taken significantly less time to win (or lose), and had the Canadians not been scheduled to play their second group stage match against Poland as soon as tomorrow, she might well have partnered Dabrowski in the doubles. On the strength of her successes with American Taylor Townsend this year (they fell just shy of qualifying for the WTA Finals), she’s a top-20 doubles player.
As it was, though, it was a wise move by captain Heidi el Tabakh to sit her and put in Bouchard.
With Marino on the bench all day, you’d have to think she’s not 100 per cent after playing the Pan American Games in Chile outdoors on red clay, and rushing to Midland, Mich. to play a WTA 125 indoors on hard immediately afterwards.
The 29-year-old Bouchard hasn’t played a point since the US Open, and only two doubles matches in the last 12 months.
Whether that doubles point proves crucial in the end – it might well – it’s pretty great to have it.
Coming up aces on short notice
Huge credit has to go to both Bouchard and Dabrowski, who played at the WTA Finals in Cancún, Mexico as late as Sunday. She and Cana-Kiwi Erin Routliffe suffered a pretty crushing loss to Ellen Perez and Nicole Melichar-Martinez after going undefeated in the group stages.
She was devastated (more on that soon), and then had to make the long, long trip to Spain.
But the abbreviated format means the doubles – which sometimes was a deciding rubber but more often a meaningless match to fill out the schedule for most of the Canadian’s career – is meaningful now. It’s all she’s ever wanted. And she came through.
Bouchard hadn’t played for her country since … 2018. And only once in BJK Cup since … 2015. And only one previous time ever in doubles – in a fifth and deciding doubles rubber against Ukraine in a Group II playoff tie all the way back in 2013 in Kiev.
She came up big.
A Rio Reunion
How long had it been since Dabrowski and Bouchard, who are two years apart and did crisscross during their junior days, played together?
Well, it goes all the way back to the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Here are some highlights of that.
But the two go back much further than that.
Back at the US Open in 2010, in the juniors, the two went all-samurai with the bandannas and paired up in the doubles. They had reached the final of the big junior event outside Montreal – the warmup tournament for the US Open – just prior to going to New York (the Pliskova sisters defeated them) and had played one other time in 2009.
Here’s what they looked like then – more than 13 years ago.
They played a pro event in Saguenay a few weeks later. Who did they lose to? Marino and … El Tabakh.
Feels like full circle.
Canada plays Poland tomorrow. And No. 1 and WTA Finals champion Iga Swiatek won’t be there.