It’s exactly the way the Canadian Fed Cup team would have drawn it up – two wins on the opening day of the 2019 World Group II first round in the Netherlands, making for an auspicious debut for rookie captain Heidi El Tabakh.
Bianca Andreescu is the heart and soul of the team and she played her role perfectly in a dominant 66-minute opening-match 6-4, 6-1 win over Richel Hogenkamp. Saturday’s second match at the Maaspoort arena in Den Bosch was a more complicated, drawn-out affair as Francoise Abanda continued her fine run of Fed Cup form – downing the No. 1 on the Dutch team, Arantxa Rus, 7-6(8), 4-6, 6-4 in two hours and 37 minutes.
The 22-year-old from Montreal escaped from a perilous first-set tiebreak – saving one set point and then finally converting on her fourth – and then lost the second set but regrouped well for the third, breaking serve to 4-2 and eventually, at 5-4, serving out the match to love. That ultimate game followed the disappointment of failing to convert triple match point on the Rus serve in the previous game.
After all the ups and downs of the match, Abanda credited El Tabakh with keeping her on an even keel. “Thank you so much to Heidi,” she said post-match, “she was so motivational and giving me so much energy to stay in the match. I did get discouraged but this is what Fed Cup is all about and she really helped me to fight, keep that energy and to believe in my shots.”
The match featured a recurring pattern of straight up-and-down the middle exchanges as the players fenced with each while waiting for an opening or an error. The left-handed Rus spent a lot of time hitting high topspin shots while Abanda replied with low, flat drives that skimmed the net but almost never ended up in it.
“She was playing heavy and running well,” Abanda said about the wiry, 5-foot-10 Rus, “so I had to go for my shots. It was a stressful match coming in but I’m happy with the way I handled it.”
It was not the cleanest match as Abanda had 52 unforced errors to 37 for Rus. But the Canadian also pressured 43 (forced) errors out of her opponent while Rus could manage only 23 on Abanda.
The closeness of the match can be seen in the final points total – 89-88 for Abanda.
Post-match there was controversy about a line call when Rus had her lone set point leading 7-6 in the opening-set tiebreak. Abanda appeared to have hit long but umpire Marta Mrozinska came out onto the court and checked the mark (shown above) and ruled that the ball caught a bit of the line.
Four points later Abanda won the set when Rus missed wildly with a backhand.
Dutch captain Paul Haarhuis claimed that local television coverage was able to show that Mrozinska had looked at the wrong mark – although in the picture above there don’t seem to be any real alternative marks in the general area.
Later, in the third set, Mrozinska got down from the chair to check a mark on a point that gave Abanda a service break to 3-2. But on that occasion she called out the linesman to identify the correct mark. Haarhuis was referring to that when he later said about the disputed first-set call, “we also have it on tape but there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why I went to the ref after that other discussion where I said ‘so now you ask the linesperson to come out and in the other call it was in the wrong direction (location) and you don’t make the linesperson go (out). But you can’t change things like that so there’s no use crying over split milk.”
Canadian captain El Tabakh conceded, “there were two really close line calls but it’s just really hard to tell if the balls were in or out. It could have gone either way but I think it was fair play.”
The 52-year-old Haarhuis, a former ATP No. 1 doubles player, didn’t hesitate to give Abanda her due, saying, “in the end she came up with big shots on the big points. It was close all the way. Hats off to her for serving it out (in the final game) like that – only first serves and big forehands and backhands after that.”
Abanda now has a 6-4 record in Fed Cup singles and has won her last four in a row. “I’m happy I was kind of clutch on the important points,” she summed up. “I’m grateful for the win.”
While the second match overflowed with drama, the first one between Andreescu and Hogenkamp was really only close until Andreescu broke serve to 4-2 in the opening set. She soon went up 5-2 but then had a bit of a let-up as Hogenkamp rallied to 4-5. In the following game the 26-year-old Dutchwoman was serving and led 15-love. But she lost the next point when Andreescu pressed at the net and Hogenkamp missed with a lob that hit the ceiling of the Maaspoort arena. Soon Andreescu had her third set point and hit a cool forehand inside/in winner to wrap things up.
The second set got away from Hogenkamp quickly as Andreescu broke serve in game two and quickly went ahead 3-0.
Hogenkamp had said on Friday that she thought Andreescu was a better player now after her results of January (final of Auckland WTA event, qualifying and first Grand Slam event match win at the Australian Open and first WTA title in Newport Beach, California – all leading to her current No. 70 ranking) than she had been when they spilt two matches in 2018.
Andreescu 2.0 proved to be simply too good, whether it was on clay or any other surface.
One of her tactics was to keep the ball high on the Hogenkamp single-handed backhand. “It worked well today,” Andreescu said. “I basically just tried to stay as aggressive as I could and basically beat her at her own game because I know she likes to do that too.”
The plan of hitting high to the backhand was simple, as Andreescu explained, “for her to give me a short ball and I got that a lot today.”
Haarhuis’ viewpoint on Andresscu-Hogenkamp was as follows: “Andreescu was the player who had the most initiative. She was in charge continuously looking for that spot to be in the driver’s seat. If she wasn’t in a position to control the rally, she was in a position to put the ball back deep and start all over again.
“She pushed Richel back from the baseline and she herself stayed on the baseline – I think that was the main difference. It showed in the score that it was tough to change that because she was too strong.”
El Tabakh is sitting pretty after her first day of action as a Fed Cup captain. “It was a good start for me,” she said. “I’m not going to lie – a perfect day and I’m happy to get two wins. It’s an honour to be on court with these girls.”
As for Haarhuis, trailing 0-2 it appears that desperate times call for desperate measures.
Speaking with Dutch reporters after his team lost both matches of the best-of-five match tie, he said that he will tell Rus to hit out, play aggressively and completely go for her shots in a effort to beat Andreescu to the punch when they play the third match of the tie at noon (6 a.m. ET in Canada) on Sunday.
He’s fully aware of the explosive game of the precocious 18-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., and hopes that Rus, essentially a defensive clay-courter, can somehow find it in herself to fight Andreescu’s firepower with firepower of her own.
If somehow she does that successfully, then it will be Hogenkamp verus Abanda in the fourth match and then a possible fifth doubles match featuring Gabriela Dabrowski and Andreescu for Canada and Demi Schuurs and Bibiane Schoofs (with changes possible) for the Dutch.
But if things do go Canada’s way and Andreescu wins to give captain El Tabakh another “perfect day,” then it will be on to the World Group I Playoffs the weekend of April 20-21 against an opponent, and at a location, to be determined by a draw at International Tennis Federation headquarters in London on February 12.
ROTTERDAM POST CARD
This is the stately Erasmus suspension bridge in Rotterdam. It’s named after the famed 16th and 15th century classical scholar Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus – just call me “Mus.”
Feature Picture: Mauricio Paiz