BY MARJORIE BLACKWOOD
Leylah Fernandez is literally holding court in the opening match of this tie between Canada and Latvia at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum. Holding tight to the baseline and dictating the tempo of the rallies, Leylah gives the Latvian no time to read and set up to the ball, and just when you least expect it, she throws in her patent leather feathery dropshot that dies on contact with the court. The crowd is excited to see our 2021 US Open finalist in the flesh, and she does not disappoint.
The last time I was in this venue was for Davis Cup, 1992, Canada vs Sweden. That day, both Grant Connell and Daniel Nestor posted wins over the Swedes, taking the team to a 2-0 lead. Captain Pierre Lamarche made the audacious pick to play Daniel, leading to an historic upset of Edberg. Perhaps that Day 1 history bodes well for Team Canada today in this Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier match.
After a spectacular forehand down the line winner, Leylah finally makes her signature move – fist in the air, arm circle and strut! – The crowd loves it! This is the Leylah we remember from last year at the US Open. Having Team Canada compete in Vancouver is just what this Covid-tired, tennis-starved crowd wants to be a part of, and Leylah delivers with a 6-1 6-2 win.
Although top Latvians Ostapenko (wrist injury) and Sevastova are not playing in this tie,
Team Canada needs to maintain their intensity against a younger Team Latvia who have nothing to lose.
Score: Canada 1 Latvia 0
Next on court is Rebecca Marino, a hometown heroine who has forged an inspirational tennis comeback after several years away from pro tennis. During this time, Rebecca has found herself and her game, but sadly lost her father to cancer two years to the day of this tie. Playing in front of family, friends, and in memory of her father, Marino will need to stay in the moment and compartmentalize her emotions to get through this match – we are all pulling for her.
Rebecca comes out firing, moving well and serving howitzers to set up the third shot which she pounds unmercifully into the corners to take the first set. The Latvian, Vismane, grinds her way into winning the second set in a tiebreaker, setting up a tense third set. Rebecca regroups and settles herself, using her big serve and power off the ground to win the final set 6-3. This is a testament to her strength of character, this win in front of her home crowd on this emotional day.
Score: Canada 2 Latvia 0
Meanwhile, down in the VIP Lounge Tennis Canada has invited a who’s who of the BC and Canadian tennis glitterati. National and provincial coaches, players, club owners, sport officials and major supporters and sponsors of tennis are all rubbing shoulders and gabbling like excited geese. After two isolating years on Salt Spring Island, it feels like heaven (or a super spreader) to my husband Pete and I to finally socialize, hug old pals and hang with our tennis community again.
In the centre of the lounge, Grant Connell is dishing friendly insults and jokes, enjoying his first public event in two years. Most of the tennis community knows that Grant had a serious stroke at the beginning of Covid, and through a long and arduous recovery he has become an advocate for stroke awareness, encouraging others in recovery as he also works to keep himself healing and moving forward. I adore Grant and his wife Sarah, as does everyone else in the room lucky enough to know them. Having become fast friends many years ago, Peter and I are staying with Grant and Sarah and two of their five kids this weekend, catching up after years apart. To hang with Grant is to whirl in the vortex of his edgy wit and intellect!
I enjoy a rare reunion in the lounge with two of my 1980 Federation Cup teammates, Wendy Pattenden (Barlow) and Nina Bland. The first time the three of us have been together to cheer on Team Canada since we competed in the event in Berlin, 1980. (Am I really that old)?
It is so cool that we can be here together to see the upward arc that women’s tennis in Canada has travelled in the 40 years. I’m grateful to Tennis Canada for inviting us past players to be a part of this occasion, and for giving us a place to gather.
The last time I was part of a Federation Cup event was as Team Canada coach in Vancouver, 1987, when the event was a star-studded buffet of all the top WTA players and teams stuffed into a draw and played over one week. Wendy Pattenden was our Team Captain, and we had the strongest Canadian team to date with singles phenoms Helen Kelesi and Carling Bassett, and doubles genius Jill Heatherington. It was a watershed moment for Team Canada, defeating the Netherlands and Russia, though losing to a tough Czech Republic team in the quarterfinals. That performance qualified Canada for the summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea
Although Hurricane Helen has been named the Team Canada Ambassador for the BJK Cup, Helen has come down with a nasty flu and with much disappointment must bow out of her ambassador duties for Team Canada. Many of us looked forward to paying tribute to our feisty Helen of the gargantuan forehand.
Her tennis journey started on the public courts at Stanley Park and led her to Grand Slam Centre Courts and
# 13 in on the WTA Tour.
Post-WTA Tour, Helen has been challenged with a series of brain tumour surgeries that have required lengthy rehabilitation, but when I speak with Helen by phone after the weekend, her voice is happy and energetic, and she seems in a good place in her life. We reminisce about how being a part of past Federation Cup teams helped to cut the loneliness of the tour and were integral parts of our own tennis journeys.
Helen is now inspiring and building youth tennis at the Richmond Country Club in Richmond,BC. Her strength and resiliency will be bound to rub off on the juniors lucky enough to be under her tutelage.
Day 2, Final day of BJK Cup
Shocker! Arriving on site, I find the doubles is NOT being played as the third match?? I ask Michael Downey , CEO of Tennis Canada why the format has changed. Doubles has always been the pivotal third match in Davis Cup, why not the Billie Jean King Cup? His response is that the ITF sets the match sequence, and the thinking is that spectators prefer to see the singles players. HUH? I walk around the stadium conducting an informal poll of folks and find that most would rather have the doubles played as Match #3. In my humble opinion the grand poohbahs at the ITF should re-think this format. Doubles is played by the majority of tennis players world-wide, and we have Top 10 doubles player Gaby Dabrowski and top Canadian teammate Carol Zhao raring to compete! ITF are you listening?
Leylah cranks her tennis level dial up to max for the pivotal third match, dominating the Latvian Vismane in two sets. She is in her element, moving easily and dictating most points at will with her unique style of play. The crowd is pumped and cheering Leylah on loudly from a sea of Canadian maple leafs and Canadian red with 9160 spectators over 2 days. Visibly loving the home nation support, Leylah throws us a few more signature moves after spectacular shots, fist in the air, arm circle and strut! Henceforth, this move should just be called a “Leylah”.
Score: Canada 3-0, the tie has been won on home soil
LAST BUT NOT LEAST, The DOUBLES:
Gaby Dabrowski and Carol Zhao are on court for the fourth match. They are loose and playing lights out doubles, clearly energized to show their doubles prowess and entertain the crowd. The speed of their reflexes at net, the execution of their game plan and doubles positioning is wonderful to see. I am so impressed with this team! My dinosaur bones have a hard time imagining standing that close to net in an I-formation with balls being nailed at me off return of serve. Team formations and doubles tactics have changed a lot since my day, but hey, I started with a wooden racket. ?
Score: Canada 4 Latvia 0
Next up for Canada: The BJK Cup Finals
Team Canada has qualified for the Finals of the Billie Jean King Cup, to be held in November of 2022, Venue TBA. The ITF has suspended the Belarus and Russian Tennis Federations from participating in international team competition at this time, placing Australia and Belgium in the draws as replacements.
The Finals will have 12 teams in 4 groups of 3 countries playing off for a spot in the Semi-Finals. There will be a final knock-out phase to determine the winner of the Billie Jean King Cup, 2022.
Congratulations to Captain Heidi el Tabakh, all Team Canada players and support staff for a job well done! Although we did not get to see Francoise Abanda play this time, every player on a squad is an integral part of preparing and peaking for these big team competitions. As the saying goes, “there is no I in Team”, the win is shared equally by all.
With Bianca Andreescu and Sharon Fichman possibly in the wings, Canada could be a contender in the finals of the Billie Jean King Cup. Currently the demands of the Tour matched with the reality of injuries and individual scheduling make things far more complex to form a team than it used to be. This current crop of players and coaches may be uniquely capable of forming a cohesive team to make a run for the title.
In a brilliant move that got good media coverage, 50 junior girls from Tennis BC are invited out to observe a Team Canada practice and hear Team Canada speak their stories and answer questions from the girls.
What a great way to inspire the next generation.
Kudos to Tennis Canada along with Tennis BC support for a job well done. The event was well organized, the Tennis Canada staff and volunteers did a great job on communication and promoting the event to ticket holders and invitees. The ubiquitous Tennis Canada merchandise store ensured the stadium was draped in red and maple leaf symbols all weekend
Both Helen Kelesi and I think the ITF should change the order of matches to put Doubles in as Match #3!
About the writer
Marjorie Blackwood is a 3- time Canadian champion and former Top 50 WTA player with 13 professional doubles titles to her name. Marjorie represented Canada in the Federation Cup from 1976-1982.
Marjorie lives on Salt Spring Island with husband Peter Schelling, and Maggie the lab, where she teaches tennis, harvests apples and grows wicked organic garlic.
Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier
(Formerly known as the Federation Cup)
Vancouver, April 15/16, 2022
Team Canada vs Team Latvia