The Canada – Romania Fed Cup World Group I playoff this weekend in Montreal was shaping up to be eerily similar to Canada’s first round meeting against the Czech Republic in Quebec City in February.
On that occasion without Canadian No. 1 Genie Bouchard, the Czechs, even with Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova not playing, simply outclassed a depleted Canadian team 4-0 without dropping a set.
This time, it appeared Romania, absent world No. 3 Simona Halep, would be too much for Canada – until Bouchard announced Sunday that she will play.
Now with the world No. 7 on board, Canada has a fighting chance but it won’t be easy because the Romanians still have two solid singles players in No. 33-ranked Irina Camilia-Begu and No. 69 Alexandra Dulgheru.
The only singles players who will be facing each other this weekend to have previously met are the respective team’s No. 1 players – Bouchard defeated Begu 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 in the round-of-16 at the Australian Open in January.
“I know she will fight hard,” Bouchard said recalling that match with Begu. “I was winning quite easily and she came back so you know she won’t give up. She has good strokes on both sides and no real weaknesses.”
As a result of the draw ceremony on Friday at the Olympic Stadium Tower (the Romanians viewing it above), the 5-foot-11 Begu (she looks taller) will kick off the best-of-five match tie on Saturday (1 p.m. ET on OLN and rebroadcast at 7 p.m. ET on Sportsnet One) against Canadian No. 2 Francoise Abanda of Montreal.
It’s a big ask for the 18-year-old Abanda, playing in only her second Fed Cup tie after facing the Czechs in February.
The No. 260-ranked Montrealer was chosen ahead of No. 181-ranked Gabriela Dabrowski and No. 205 Sharon Fichman. “I have confidence in all three players,” insisted Canadian captain Sylvain Bruneau. He added about choosing Abanda, “the fact that we’re playing in Montreal, that’s she’s pretty young and that she’s always played well in Montreal, those are factors that worked in her favour.”
Begu said she didn’t know much about Abanda but would consult with her coach.
The Bouchard – Dulgheru match could be key to a competitive tie. Both players have something to prove. Dulgheru, 25, is back playing after a number of injury setbacks had her competing in ITF Futures events several times in 2014.
“I have been off for two or three years because I’ve had a few injuries,” she explained on Friday. “It isn’t easy to come back. I had two knee surgeries and other injuries because of that – quite a few.”
Asked if they were all lower body injuries – not arm and shoulders for example, she smiled and said motioning from the top of her head, “from here to the toes.”
She ranked as high as No. 26 in April, 2011, the month after she played a memorable match with Maria Sharapova in the quarter-finals of the WTA Premier event in Miami. It was a three hours and 28 minute marathon full of drama lasting into the wee hours. “People always say to me ‘do you remember that first match how you played in Miami?’ …of course I remember (smiles). I remember the second serve winner on the match point. I’ve played against many top players and played good matches so it’s good for my confidence.”
She has played Sharapova two times since then, including extending the Russian to 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the second round of the US Open last year.
Dulgheru (far left above) seems back in good form in 2015, having reached the final of a WTA event in Kuala Lumpur (wins over Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges) in February before losing to Caroline Wozniacki 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 in the final.
“Slowly I’ve found my pace, I feel better,” Dulgheru said. “I just hope to stay healthy so I can have more of those games (matches).”
Bouchard – coming in on a three-match losing streak – Lesia Tsurenko in Indian Wells, Tatjana Maria in Miami and Lauren Davis in Charleston – also will be hoping to “find her pace.”
She said the late decision to play Fed Cup had to do with playing “where I was born and grew up” and also with the requirement to play Fed Cup once more in 2015 or 2016 in order to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m here to play the best I can,” Bouchard said. “I’m going to play for myself but obviously this weekend it’s a little bit different because we’re a team. So I’m going to give everything I can but it’s a team effort and I can’t do everything myself.
“I’ll be a little bit nervous, but I’m like that before every match. It’s normal. It’ll be like any other match. I’ll be in my own bubble. I won’t think of expectations. I’ll just play tennis and try to have fun.”
Fed Cup ties, except for the final round, seldom take place in a vacuum, with action going on all over the globe.
On Saturday, there will be some focus on Zielona Gora, Poland, as Switzerland plays the host country in a World Group I playoff. It’s noteworthy for the return of 34-year-old Martina Hingis, the five-time Grand Slam champion, who has not played singles on the WTA Tour since 2007 but currently ranks No. 4 in doubles.
Hingis (who plays Agnieszka Radwanska) was chosen ahead of 29-year-old Romina Oprandi, who ranks No. 129. The selection will make Hingis available for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Sharon Fichman, 24, is – but not by much – the oldest of the Canadian team players.
She was asked on Friday what she thought of the Hingis comeback in singles.
“I think she’s amazing,” Fichman said. “She only plays doubles on tour but she’s very capable of playing singles. Being at the same tournaments as her, I’ve seen her practice a lot. I played her in World Team Tennis last year and played sets against her before and she’s great. I think that’s pretty cool. She obviously has confidence in her ability and her talent in order for them to put her on the line. I’m really excited to see what unfolds.”
Shortly after her response, Fichman added, in a more private moment, that she prefers to be considered the “wisest” not the oldest member of the team.
Missing from the Canadian team line-up is veteran Aleksandra Wozniak. The 27-year-old from nearby Blainville, Que., had shoulder surgery last October and is still not ready to return. Her last tournament was the 2014 US Open where she lost in the first round to Kurumi Nara of Japan (above). Wozniak has still managed to maintain a No. 223 WTA ranking and will return no earlier than for Roland Garros next month.
Absent from the Romanian side is world No. 3 Simona Halep. Halep went 1-1 – defeating Silvia Soler Espinosa but losing to Garbine Muguruza – in Romania’s 3-2 World Group II win over Spain at home in Galati in February.
She’s playing the WTA Premier event in Stuttgart next week and will be the No. 1 seed if Maria Sharapova – who pulled out of Russia’s tie with Germany in Sochi this weekend with a leg injury – is not able to play. Halep lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opening round in Stuttgart a year ago so might be able to move back to No. 2 (August, 2014) in the rankings ahead of Sharapova with a good showing.
Also missing is injured (abdominal strain) Monica Niculescu, the possessor of arguably the most eccentric game in tennis – all slices and chops on both forehand and backhand wings. The off-pace specialist has a totally unconventional gamestyle.
Niculescu, 27 and ranked No. 61, has played the most singles matches (21) of all the current Romanian players and has a 14-7 record.
It’s hard to find anywhere more fanatical about hockey than Montreal – and there is no more legendary player in the history of the sport in French Canada than 1950s goal-scoring sensation Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.
The arena where Canada and Romania are playing this weekend’s Fed Cup tie is named after Richard and there is a statue of him in front of it.
Early Friday, with the Montreal Canadiens facing the Ottawa Senators in a Stanley Cup playoff game at the Bell Centre that evening, the above picture says something about the passion of the fans and their ongoing adoration for the inimitable “Rocket.”
In the picture above, there’s a rudimentary paper message on his right arm, some fresh flowers stuck in his left glove, a tiny white candle between his skates at the base and a makeshift cardboard sign near the blade of his stick. It reads, “Maurice, aide nous pour La Coupe.” That translates as, “Maurice, help us for The Cup.”