Photo : Martin Sidorjak
The women of Team Canada presented by Sobeys find themselves in uncharted territory.
When they step out on court on Saturday for their Billie Jean King Cup semifinals, it will be the first time that any of them will see Canadian representatives in the final four of the team competition.
That’s because the last time Canada made it to the semifinals of this event, then called the Federations Cup, was in 1988. The oldest member of this year’s team, Rebecca Marino, was born two years after that.
It has been a long time coming for the Canadians to get back to this level.
“I’m extremely happy, excited, ecstatic for playing in the semis,” said Leylah Annie Fernandez after scoring the clinching point on Thursday against Magda Linette of Poland. “It means the world to me. It means the world to us. It means that Canada is going up in tennis and we are producing a lot of great tennis players. Every single year we keep improving and learning from our mistakes.”
“It’s the result we were hoping for, it couldn’t have gone much better than today,” expressed captain Heidi El Tabakh. “It’s been an incredible 48 hours for us. I’m very proud of the girls. They way they fought and performed on the court was incredible.”
On paper, Canada was not the favourite in their group. While Fernandez was the second-highest-ranked singles player among the three nations (behind No. 23-ranked Linette), she was the lone singles player on Team Canada ranked inside the Top 150. Each other country had at least two singles players inside the Top 100.
According to the Billie Jean King Cup rankings, Canada (No. 6) was the second-best team in the group behind No. 3 Spain.
But rankings are just numbers on paper. They mean nothing once the ball is in play.
Canada did not just cruise through the group, they hardly looked threatened much of the time.
“I’m proud of the way that I played but also the way that the team has been playing,” said Fernandez. “Marina [Stakusic] has been doing amazing the first few matches. I’m super happy that she’s getting the wins for us. What I’m most proud of is the way we’ve been competing in every match.”
Through six matches during the group stage, the Canadians lost just one set. Both of their ties were 3-0 victories, despite the fact that their players were ranked lower in three out of four singles matches.
In the 35 years since Canada reached the semifinals of the Billie Jean King Cup, the landscape of the sport has completely changed in the Great White North. For a long time, tennis struggled to keep up with the major North American team sports for relevance, but over the last decade or so, it has begun to grow as Canadian players saw more success.
That culminated in Canada’s victory at the Davis Cup last year, something the women are now looking to replicate.
“We just want what the men were able to do and for us to win the Billie Jean King Cup would be a dream,” said Fernandez.
“This definitely feels great, but I know the girls are still hungry and the ultimate goal for us is to win the Billie Jean King Cup and I believe in my girls. I believe we can do it,” elaborated El Tabakh. “That’s what everyone is fighting for.”
Stakusic, who has been revelation for the team this week in Seville, pointed to the success of Canadian players over recent years, including her teammates, as a reason for the growth of the game in Canada.
“It’s the inspiration of Leylah, Felix [Auger-Aliassime], Denis [Shapovalov], Bianca [Andreescu] that’s inspiring a lot of kids to start playing tennis.”
She also credited the national federation, saying, “They’ve helped me a lot, especially in the last year or two. A lot of people are starting to play tennis. The whole federation itself is really good in Canada.”
The 18-year-old was a bit of a surprise pick, both for the team and then to play, but she more than justified captain Heidi El Tabakh’s pick with two impressive victories.
“It’s fair to say a champion is born,” said El Tabakh. “We all believed in her abilities and capabilities but I think she surpassed everyone’s expectations and just showed everyone that she belongs here so I’m excited for her future because she’s going to be incredible.”
Canada awaits the winner of Group A, either Czechia or the United States, in the semifinals, which will take place on Saturday.