Canada and Romania played each other to a standstill on the opening day of their Fed Cup World Group I Playoff in Montreal on Saturday – Francoise Abanda defeated Irina-Camelia Begu 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 and Alexandra Dulgheru beat Genie Bouchard 6-4, 6-4.
It was the opposite of the way most people imagined the teams would get to 1-all. Instead of the No. 1s dominating, Canadian No. 2 Abanda took advantage of a mid-match calf injury to outplay Begu and later Romanian No. 2 Dulgheru capitalized on Bouchard’s inability to sustain the aggressive hitting that has become her calling card on the way to her current No. 7 ranking.
Both matches were filled with drama, with Begu looking well on her way to victory leading 2-0 and love-30 on the Abanda serve in the third set when she pulled up after dumping a backhand into the set. From that point on there were courtside treatments and she gradually seemed to get better but still didn’t attain the consistent level of earlier in the match.
To the No. 260-ranked Abanda’s credit, she had played well right from the start, especially for an 18-year-old playing in only her second Fed Cup tie against an opponent ranked No. 33.
She resisted to temptation to change her game in any way to try to take advantage of Begu’s injury. Instead she continued with a steady barrage of well-struck forehands and backhands and excellent scampering to keep up with Begu’s increased bigger and bigger hitting as she tried to shorten points to lessen the load on her calf.
“I wanted to hit a bit harder and finish the points a bit earlier than normal because of the pain,” Begu said later about her tactics in the third set after she got hurt. “She (Abanda) is running good and she’s moving good. So to stay with her in the rallies I wanted to be more aggressive but it didn’t work so much for me today.”
Abanda talked about her reaction to Begu’s problem and how she dealt with it. “When I was sitting in the chair, captain Sylvain (Bruneau) helped me by telling me to try to block out the fact that she was injured and just to concentrate on myself because it could become a distraction if you look too often at your opponent. I just thought about my shots and keeping on fighting and it worked.”
“I was just really happy to get through it and have my first Fed Cup win in Montreal in my hometown,” Abanda (jumping above) said after her win, which she called the greatest of her career. “It was a really tough. Begu, although she had a little discomfort, she fought hard.”
The calf issue for Begu could result in Romania’s Andreea Mitu, a 23-year-old ranked No. 104, replacing her for the first singles on Sunday if the “contraction,” as she called it, does not improve.
“I felt it already in the second set,” Begu said, “but I thought that I could finish without having so much pain.”
About whether she will be ready to play Bouchard – a match-up of their respective country’s No. 1 players – Begu said, “I don’t know yet. I’ll have to talk to my coach and my team.”
It will be interesting for whichever Romanian player faces Bouchard, who has now lost her fourth consecutive match, with none of them to opponents ranked higher than No. 62 – Lauren Davis in Charleston last week.
“It wasn’t a great performance tennis-wise, but I tried my best on every single point and you can’t ask for more than that,” Bouchard said of her performance.
What is most strange about Bouchard is how erratic and inconsistent she is. There were times during the match when she seemed to find her rhythm, however briefly, and was controlling the rallies with her powerful, body-blow ground strokes. Then inexplicably, she would make flagrant errors – usually flying the ball well outside the lines. It has to be a dilemma for her because going for her shots is what got her to as high as No. 5 in 2014, and to temper her hitting is almost to tinker with what has been the essence of her success.
She did say Saturday that there was some progress from her three previous losses, noting, “I feel that where I’m coming from, it’s a step in the right direction.”
Her new coach, Sam Sumyk, is in attendance and she will surely have a good talk with him before facing either Begu or Mitu, about whom Bouchard said she knows nothing, on Sunday. That’s at 1 p.m. to be followed by Abanda against Dulgheru.
On Saturday, Dulgheru pulled through a match that got very interesting at the end of the second set. The 25-year-old, ranked No. 69, served for the match at 5-4 against Bouchard but needed five match points before finally closing it out when Bouchard soared a mis-hit forehand well over the baseline. It had seemed that fate and Bouchard might be turning the match around, especially when she saved the third match point with a cold backhand net cord that fell over the net. “That really felt heavy,” Dulgheru joked in her post-match interview.
A key for the Romanian was to, whenever possible, keep the ball to the Bouchard forehand, which was misfiring with troublesome regularity.
“She’s strong on both sides but she’s making more mistakes with her forehand – she also makes more winners,” Dulgheru said about Bouchard. “So I tried to push her more on the forehand and then go for it on the other side. At some points she was trying to win the point in three shots and she was making more mistakes.”
If the tie reaches 2-all on Sunday after the singles, it will be decided by a doubles match with Sharon Fichman and Gabriela Dabrowski the announced team for Canada and Mitu and Raluca Olaru for the Romanians. But that is subject to change.
There was quite a fuss made on Saturday about Bouchard’s refusal to shake Dulgheru’s hand during the pro forma photographs of the singles match-ups after the official draw ceremony on Friday.
“It was an awkward moment,” Dulgheru said. “The thing about Fed Cup is that it’s a spirit kind of competition and it’s about fair play and good values. She (Bouchard) said it was her superstition and it was nothing personal. But doing that goes a bit in contradiction to those values. It was a bit awkward and maybe that motivates me a bit more.”
As for Bouchard, she explained herself as follows: “I just don’t believe in wishing my opponents good luck before a match. We never shake hands before a match on the WTA circuit or in Grand Slams. It’s nothing personal against that specific opponent or the country or anything like that and I’ll gladly shake her hand after the match. But I just don’t believe in wishing her good luck because that would be lying – that would be fake.”
The Romanians took a subtle shot at Bouchard, with the team coaches withdrawing their hands when Dulgheru reached out courtside to shake them after her win.
The gentleman above had a sign that attempted to show the lighter side of the whole controversy.
The last time there was big-time tennis in the Maurice Richard Arena, in Montreal’s east end near the Olympic Stadium, was in 1979 and 1980.
It was the WCT (World Championship Tennis) Challenge Cup – a made-for-TV eight-man event featuring top-20 players.
In 1979, the final (photo above was done by an amateur) featured the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 players – Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors – just before they went on court.