Twelve months ago, Canada had yet to win either major international team tennis competitions.
Now, they are the unified champions.
With Team Canada presented by Sobeys’ victory over Italy on Sunday to claim the Billie Jean King Cup, following the men’s Davis Cup victory a year ago, Canada became the 11th country to win both events.
Additionally, as the men as still the reigning champions for at least another two weeks, Canada becomes the sixth nation to simultaneously hold both titles.
“I’m incredibly proud of every single girl that’s sitting here,” expressed captain Heidi El Tabakh. “It’s been a pleasure sharing the court with them all week, and everyone who is here currently has been a huge asset to the Canadian team throughout the years. We wouldn’t be here without every single one of them right now.”
Never Say Die
Given how dominant Canada was this week in Seville, it is wild to think how close they were to exiting the event back in April.
Canada trailed Belgium 2-1 in their qualifying tie and Leylah Annie Fernandez was down a set and a break in the final singles match against Ysaline Bonaventure. A loss would have ended Canada’s title bid prematurely.
But as Fernandez is prone to do, she found another gear with her back against the wall. And while her season on the WTA Tour may not have gone as well, she never dropped her level while wearing the maple leaf.
Fernandez finished 2023 a perfect 8-0 in Billie Jean King Cup, 6-0 in singles and 2-0 in doubles. She only dropped two sets in those eight matches.
Finding ways to win is just what Team Canada does, no matter who is on the court.
“We’re world champions and we rightfully deserve it,” stated Fernandez. “We worked really hard the past years and I think every year we just keep improving. It’s showing on the tennis court. It’s showing in competition, individual competitions. Now it has shown in the biggest stage in the world.”
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This Canadian team was a mix of youngsters like Fernandez and Marina Stakusic, along with veterans who had been with the squad for over a decade in the form of Gabriela Dabrowski, Rebecca Marino, and Eugenie Bouchard. For them, this victory is the culmination of years of hard work.
“It means so much, it’s an incredibly special moment to share with everyone sitting here and our team also waiting for us back in the locker room,” said Dabrowski. “Everyone’s put in literal blood, sweat, and tears over the years. It has felt like like a huge relief, but in the most positive way that I could say it. It’s like a weight has been lifted off our shoulders.”
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Marino, who is the longest-serving member of the team, reflected on her road to the title starting from her 2011 debut and said, “to come from that moment [losing to Serbia in 2011] to suddenly being world champions, it’s like a huge turnaround over the course of the last 12 years. I’m really proud of the women who are sitting beside me, the work they have put in to get us here. It’s been such an effort, and I appreciate everything that you have all done.”
In a way, it could be said that Canada’s victory is the end of a path Bouchard set the country on, as her 2014 breakthrough was huge in putting Canada on the tennis map. The Montrealer also was critical in getting Team Canada out of the regional zone and back among the world’s elite in the Billie Jean King Cup competition.
“It’s special for my career to be able to add this to my résumé personally,” said Bouchard. “I’m proud of all these girls. Proud of the decade of Billie Jean King Cup ties I have played for Canada, playing in the Olympics, as well. All these times I get to play for my country has been super special. This is just, like, the cherry on top to be able to say we’re champions.”
Boldness Pays Off
It would be fair to say that this was not the strongest team on paper Canada could have sent to the competition. The team was without its most decorated singles player, Bianca Andreescu, who has had another difficult year with injuries.
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They also made the bold decision to go with a rookie in Marina Stakusic rather than a more experienced player.
Tennis is not a sport like most teams sports, where a coach’s decision has a massive impact on play. At the end of the day, it is still the players on court who decide the results.
But the one big way a captain influences the results in Billie Jean King Cup is choosing a lineup, and El Tabakh made that choice count when she picked Stakusic.
“It was a close decision. It’s never an easy decision deciding which player gets to play,” explained El Tabakh. “We waited basically till the end of the week to see how everyone is doing. I was nervous for Marina. When I first put her, I was thinking ‘what am I going to tell her when she’s nervous?’ I was preparing all these things in my head of what I could possibly say. And then after she hit the first return, I’m like ‘Alright, I think she’s good.’”
El Tabakh summed up what much of the dialogue on the broadcast and across social media was throughout the week about Stakusic when she said “I think it’s fair to say that a champion is born this week. She exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Really, Stakusic’s performance in Seville was typical of that Team Canada “Next-Player-Up,” underdog mentality. Rankings and experience can go out the window once you step on court. All that matters is how hard you fight and how well you hit the ball.
Team Canada has done that better than anyone for the last 12 months.
Just the Beginning
And don’t be surprised if this is the first of many titles for Canada. Fernandez is just 21 years old. Stakusic is 18. At 31, Dabrowski is coming off a career year and doubles players tend to play longer than singles players. Even the absent Andreescu is just 23.
Add that to a men’s team that won the title Davis Cup in 2022 with four of five team members under the age of 24 and this could just be the start for Canada.
Even beyond the current crop, Captain El Tabakh thinks this victory will increase the sport’s importance in the great white north.
“I hope we inspire a lot of young girls and young kids to pick up the racket and say, ‘One day we could do this.’ We’re one of the leading sports in Canada right now, and because of what these girls did, I hope that we continue to inspire and motivate young kids.”
No matter how you look at it right now, Canada is the world’s prime example of a tennis nation.