The photo above is of better days, hopeful days, as a jubilant Canadian Fed Cup squad swept the Netherlands in February.
Two months later, the bad news is … well, it’s pretty much all bad news.
The team had been counting on the young player of the hour, 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu, to lead the team in its effort to get into World Group I.
But Andreescu is pretty banged up after a career-making trip to Indian Wells and Miami. And she has a big spring clay-court season ahead as a top-25 player. So she can’t make the date.
Also out? Genie Bouchard, who hasn’t played since Miami.
Also out? Françoise Abanda, a player whose best career moments have come when representing her country.
It’s a key playoff tie that would get them into World Group I. But to face the Czechs in Prostejov, the vaunted Canadian tennis program basically had to get all hands on deck.
Marino to lead in singles
Rebecca Marino, currently ranked No. 204, must be the leader.
The 28-year-old will have to play No. 1 singles – on red clay – in her first Fed Cup singles duty since 2011.
Rookie at No. 2 singles
At No. 2? That likely will be Leylah Annie Fernandez. The 16-year-old will be making her Fed Cup debut. The alternative is Gabriela Dabrowski, a doubles star who is a talented singles player, but has rarely played in recent years.
The fourth member of the team will be Sharon Fichman.
Fichman has played in 27 Fed Cup ties in her career, most of them on the South American clay in the zonals.
But the 28-year-old hasn’t worn the colours since 2016. She had basically retired before returning in doubles last year.
The “press-release quote” from new captain Heidi el Tabakh is, as you would expect, full of positive.
“Our players have all had some good results since the start of the year. And we are hoping to capitalize on their momentum going into this matchup. We recognize that this tie represents a challenge for us as we are playing a great team who is proficient on a clay court surface. They are last year’s Fed Cup champions. And we will be prepared for some tough matches.”
Basically, it’s a disaster
The Canadians were so impressive in February, playing on indoor clay in the Netherlands.
Andreescu didn’t drop a set in her two singles matches. Abanda, whose shoulder already was bothering her and has barely played since, impressively defeated lefty Arantxa Rus. And Dabrowski and Marino won the dead-rubber doubles to sweep.
The win over the Netherlands was Marino’s first participation in a Fed Cup tie since 2011. So, in retrospect, it was good for her to at least get her feet wet in anticipation of the heavy load she’ll have to carry in Prostejov.
Since returning after a 5 1/2-year retirement at the beginning of last season, Marino has played singles on red clay just once. It was early in her comeback in 2018, at one of the lower-level Futures events she played in Antalya, Turkey.
Before that, the Vancouver native’s last red-clay experience goes back to the 2011 French Open. There, she reached the third round and lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova. So far in her career, that has been the only good result for her on that surface.
From Osaka to Prostejov, for Canada
The bigger challenge Marino faces is that she is currently in her fifth consecutive week on the ITF hard-court circuit – in Japan.
It is both impressive and commendable that she’s willing to fly from Osaka to the Czech Republic, with the jet lag and all the wear and tear she’s experienced over the last five weeks, and quickly switch to a less-beloved surface to represent the maple leaf.
But it’s a big challenge.
(Marino, who was a finalist last week in Kashiwa, won her first-round singles match in Osaka Tuesday. But has yet to play her first-round doubles match).
Rookie Fernandez at No. 2?
The most experienced and accomplished of the group, Dabrowski played singles last week at an ITF in Florida. But that’s been a rare occurrence in recent years given the disparity between her doubles ranking (which allows her to play the biggest WTA events), and her current singles ranking of No. 387.
With the Fed Cup format putting the doubles rubber last after the singles, the outcome is often decided before it gets to that point. And so Dabrowski’s expertise has too often not been called upon.
Fernandez, who reached the semifinals in her Grand Slam junior debut at the French Open a year ago, is very much an outsider in the Tennis Canada scheme.
She receives very little financial support, even though she reached No. 4 in the junior rankings after making the girls’ singles final at the Australian Open in January. She trains in Florida with her father, Jorge.
The young lefty does have more recent clay-court experience – although it was in Australia. Fernandez reached the quarterfinals of a pair of $25,000 ITF events. Both times, she came out of the qualifying, and was defeated by Aussie veteran Olivia Rogowska. Her WTA Tour ranking stands at a career-best No. 376.
Under(wo)manned Czechs still strong
The Czechs will not have top-10 players Petra Kvitova or Karolina Pliskova on board.
But unlike Canada, this established tennis nation has significant depth.
The players who will take part – Marketa Vondrousova, Karolina Muchova, Maria Bouzkova and Barbora Krejcikova (who just won a big ITF title on the American clay in Florida) are all ranked much higher than the Canadians. Krejcikova also is ranked No. 2 in the world in doubles, typically paired with Katerina Siniakova.
Veteran Lucie Safarova, who will officially retire at a home tournament in Prague later this month, is the fifth member of the team.
A big challenge made even bigger
To sum up, it’s a pretty dire situation for the Canadians, who would have had a better than fighting chance with their best assets – Andreescu, Bouchard and Abanda – at full strength.
Here’s the press-release blurb about the absence of Andreescu. There is no elaboration on the absences of Bouchard and Abanda.
“Bianca Andreescu was not named to the Canadian Fed Cup team for the upcoming tie against the Czech Republic due to a lingering injury that she suffered during the Miami Open. Andreescu has been recuperating and slowly preparing for her return to competition. Representing Canada has always been a priority for Andreescu, who has played in eight consecutive Fed Cup ties since her debut in 2017. Although she is unable to participate, she wishes the team the best of luck and she will be ready for the next tie.”