Helen Kelesi hits a backhand.

Photo : Melinda Phillips

When it was announced that Canada would be hosting Latvia at the Pacific Coliseum a few short months ago, excitement began to build across British Columbia. The anticipation of seeing some of the best women’s tennis players in the world up close gripped the province. And there was one fan in particular who just couldn’t wait to see the team in action.

BC native and former World No. 13 Helen Kelesi has represented the Maple Leaf in her fair share of Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup and Federation Cup) ties. In fact, she holds an impressive 15-10 record in the competition, including 11 singles victories. Earlier in March, she was named Team Canada Ambassador for the April 15-16 tie and she’s thrilled at the prospect of seeing the likes of Leylah Annie Fernandez, Rebecca Marino, Gabriela Dabrowski, Francoise Abanda and Carol Zhao compete for their country in her home province.

“It’s very exciting. When I played it was called the Federation Cup but it was always an honour and a privilege to play in a team situation because you’re always alone out there for 99% of the time you’re playing,” Kelesi said. “So, I always felt that I played my best tennis [at BJK Cup] and it was quite thrilling. We had our Federation Cup here in 1987 in Vancouver and that’s one of my fondest memories of my whole career. Billie Jean King Cup is very dear to my heart and I’m looking forward to seeing our Canadian team play live after watching them on TV so much.”

As participation rates and interest in tennis continue to rise across BC, so does fans’ support for their own. Canada’s No. 2 singles player for this tie, Marino, is a proud Vancouverite and, having experienced what it’s like playing in front of a home crowd herself, Kelesi is confident the 31-year-old will enjoy the support of a passionate Canadian crowd.

“Rebecca is so highly regarded here,” she said. “She has a lot of respect and a lot of fans here. They know her story and what she’s been through, so I think she’ll get that extra support. To play in your hometown, I think that’s something special. I always looked forward to it.”

With a place in the year-end Billie Jean King Cup Finals on the line, the Latvian team provides a difficult test for Team Canada Captain Heidi El Tabakh and her roster. Kelesi, though, has full confidence in what is an extremely talented Canadian team, who she thinks will pull through thanks to its remarkable strength in depth.

“We have an incredible team,” she said. “The Canadian men and Canadian women for that matter. It’s just such an incredible time for Canadian tennis. Probably the best ever.”

She added: “It will be a very, very tough match but I think Canada can pull through.”