Canada’s Fed Cup team pushed Belarus to the limit in their World Group II opening round in Quebec City over the weekend before the visitors prevailed with a 6-2, 6-4 victory in the deciding doubles match.
After Francoise Abanda from Montreal defeated No. 1 Belarusian Olga Govortsova 6-4, 6-4 and Aliaksandra Sasnovich won by the same score over Aleksandra Wozniak of Blainville, Que., it all came down to Carol Zhao of Richmond Hill, Ont., and Gabriela Dabrowski of Ottawa against Govortsova and Sasnovich.
Unfortunately for the home squad, the Belarusians broke Zhao in the opening game and Dabrowski in the third on the way to taking the first set 6-2 – a set in which the Canadians failed to hold serve.
The second set was much more competitive as Fed Cup rookie Zhao, 20, and Dadrowski, 23, settled in and played much better. Rather than four breaks as in the opening set, in the second all the Belarusians needed was a single break of the Zhao serve at 2-all to go on and take the set and the match, allowing their team to move on to the World Group Play-offs April 16-17.
Captain Sylvain Bruneau thought Govortsova and Sasnovich had an edge because both had previously played two singles matches. “They got a bit of the nerves out,” he said, “and they had a feel for the court, the balls and the crowd. They played well from the very first point.”
“We struggled to get our momentum going a little bit,” Zhao said. “We had a good plan but we weren’t able to execute. But credit to them – they played well, very solid, and didn’t give us much room to move.”
Sasnovich was the undisputed star of the weekend – beating Abanda in Saturday’s singles and then Wozniak in Sunday’s second match with Canada leading 2-1 before combining comfortably with Govortsova to dominate the doubles.
Zhao and Dabrowski played aggressively, getting to the net as often as possible, but the Belarusians were bigger hitters and able to put Zhao and Dabrowski under constant pressure. Govortsova, now No. 366 in doubles, has been as high as No. 24 and has won eight career WTA titles. Her doubles savvy and Sasnovich’s superb form over the entire weekend were too much for Drabowski-Zhao who did all the right things but not well enough against superior opposition.
“We knew it was going to be tough if it came down to the doubles because they have a really good team,” Bruneau said. “And in these conditions they hit the ball very hard and very aggressively. I think it’s good for Carol because she broke the ice and gets some experience.”
In the day’s opening match, Francoise Abanda (above) found a nice balance between consistency and aggression to defeat Belarusian No. 1 Govortsova 6-4, 6-4. She went after Govortsova’s second serve with the world No. 74 winning only 29 per cent of those points. The Belarusian also had nine double faults, some of them undoubtedly because of the threat of Abanda teeing off.
“I stayed concentrated the whole match and, in the important moments, I did the right things,” Abanda said. “On the big points, she played poorly too – so I was a bit lucky but I’m still happy.”
Regarding her approach to the match, the 19-year-old said, “I think she’s coming back from an injury. I was trying to keep the ball in court as much as I can but at the same time stay aggressive. So I’m happy I was able to execute that well today.”
That execution included 31 winners and 27 unforced errors. She lost her cool a bit – swiping her racquet on the court – when she got broken at 2-all in the second set and then fell behind 4-2 when the 27-year-old Govortsova held serve. But she then proceeded to run off four games in a row to give Canada a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five match tie.
In the first set of the Wozniak – Sasnovich, there were no breaks until Wozniak served at 4-5. Before that game Sasnovich had an injury time-out and the Belarusian trainer came out and iced her left thigh.
She broke Wozniak in that final game on her second set point with a big inside/out forehand service return winner. The thigh did not seem to hinder her in any way the rest of the match and the way she played in doubles showed it was no factor.
In the second set, the match was very competitive with Sasnovich breaking serve to 3-1. But Wozniak battled back and saved four breaks points in a six-deuce game to level the set at 4-all.
Sasnovich held to 5-4 then got back to deuce from 40-30 in the final game before hitting two big forehand winners – including a match point almost identical to the opening set set point – to wrap up the match in an hour and 35 minutes.
There are many ways to analyze the overall outcome but probably the simplest is that the No. 99-ranked Sasnovich was the best player in the tie and Wozniak (above), coming back from her 2014 shoulder surgery – and only playing her eighth event – was not quite match tough enough.
“It was a very tough match,” said Sasnovich (on right above). “I saw Aleksandra yesterday (vs. Govortsova) and she showed really good tennis. I know she was a good player, and is a good player right now as well, so it was a tough match. I’m happy with the win.”
Canada will now move on to a play-off April 16-17 to try to maintain its spot in World Group II for 2017. The draw will be announced on Tuesday February 9, and the teams Canada could face include Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Argentina, Belgium, Chinese Taipei and Ukraine.
“I haven’t looked at the teams, so I don’t know the options,” Bruneau said right after the doubles defeat.
Summing up the weekend, he said, “I thought we were very competitive as a team. I can’t ask much more. The girls gave it all they had and I’m proud of them.”
Looking back now that the dust has settled, it’s unfortunate that the two players pictured above – Genie Bouchard and Victoria Azarenka – were not present to represent their respective countries. No one knows how it would have turned out with them both playing – but it all coming down again to the doubles, as it did, is not inconceivable.
Quebec City Postcard
This ice castle is located in front of the province of Quebec’s legislative building – the Assemblée Nationale – and is part of the annual Quebec Winter Carnival.