The first edition of the Billie Jean King (formerly Fed) Cup Finals – with its one-location, one-day, best two-out-of-three matches format – begins Monday in Prague with notable absences among the top players from many of the 12 countries.

It’s unfortunate but not unexpected in these COVID-19 pandemic times. Canada, without its two top-ranked players – No. 22 Bianca Andreescu and No. 26 Leylah Fernandez – is not an exception. Belarus is without No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 27 Victoria Azarenka, Spain without No. 5 Garbine Muguruza and No. 13 Paula Badosa and the USA without No. 15 Sofia Kenin and No. 21 Jessica Pegula.

The host, 11-time champion (five as Czechoslovakia) Czechs will have their second player in No. 4-ranked Barbora Krejcikova but are missing No. 3 Karolina Pliskova and No. 17 Petra Kvitova. As well the two players who headlined the last (2019) BJK Cup Finals in Perth, No. 92 Kristina Mladenovic (who contributed to all three points in France’s third BJK Cup victory), and No. 1 ranked Ashleigh Barty, are also not in Prague.

Those absent have chosen not to play for professional and personal reasons, and interim Canadian captain Sylvain Bruneau understands. “I think it’s been a difficult year for everyone,” he said. “The conditions on the tour with the bubbles and everything – I know a lot of players found it tough to be in the bubbles and quarantines. I think a lot of them wanted to have closure on the year, hoping that 2022 will be easier. It’s too bad because the new format is really interesting, but at the same time I understand how things are.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Speaking from a player standpoint, Rebecca Marino, Canada’s top-ranked (No. 147) team member, said, “I think we’re all understanding of everyone’s schedule. From my perspective, I really respect the decisions that a lot of the top players are making, even my teammates are making. They have to do what’s right for them and their health. It means there’s opportunities for us to play and there’s a lot of depth in the women’s game, so we’re going to have a lot of top-tier matches regardless of who’s on what team. I really hope people tune in – it’ll be exciting to see how we can do against all these other great nations.”

The new format also means the teams don’t name their players for the two opening singles until an hour before the matches begin, unlike with the former formal draw ceremony the day preceding the start of play. Marino will likely face France’s top player, No. 60-ranked Alizé Cornet, in a match-up of the countries’ No. 1 players. That follows the day’s opening match featuring the respective No. 2 players.

The 31-year-old Cornet is known to be temperamental and combative on court, but that possibility doesn’t faze Marino. “It doesn’t matter to me,” the 30-year-old Vancouverite smiled. “You come up against all sorts. It’s kind of fun when there’s a little bit of drama on the other side, it means you’re doing something right.”

Whether it’s against Cornet or No. 74 Caroline Garcia or even No. 78 Clara Burel, the 6-foot Marino will attempt to impose her power game indoors on the medium-paced surface. “I often think that I want to be able to hold my serve every single time,” she said, “so that when the other girl starts to serve the pressure’s on her – a little bit like the men’s game. You expect the men to always constantly hold serve, and I want to model myself after that.”

For inspiration, she can draw on a big win in BJK Cup in April when she defeated No. 87-ranked Nina Stojanovic in Canada’s 4-0 sweep of Serbia in Kraljevo as well as her fine showing at the National Bank Open in Montreal in August where she upset No. 26-ranked Madison Keys and No. 31 Badosa.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

While Marino has had a busy year, Canada’s likely No. 2 singles player, Francoise Abanda, who had COVID-19, did not play at all between March and July. “There were a few things that happened that meant I couldn’t play,” she explained on Saturday. When she came back she played well in the National Bank Open qualifying in Montreal – losing 7-6(5), 6-4 to No. 63-ranked Garcia.

If the captains’ selections go as expected Abanda, 24, would renew acquaintances with the 28-year-old Frenchwoman in Monday’s opening match. It will be Garcia’s first BJK Cup singles since November, 2019, when she lost the opening match 6-0, 6-0 to Barty in the Finals in Perth and was then pulled from the second day’s line-up. But she did play the doubles, teaming with Mladenovic to win the deciding fifth match (see the champions with captain Julien Benneteau below).

Abanda has played well in BJK Cup in the past – in her last appearance in 2019 she defeated top Dutch player Arantxa Rus in the opening match and two years earlier was impressive in Montreal, beating both No. 31-ranked Yulia Putintseva and No. 51 Yaroslava Shvedova, in Canada’s successful World Group II Playoff win over Kazakhstan.

“I would have preferred to played more tournaments (just seven) but this week is a really great opportunity for me to play a few matches,” she said Saturday about her year so far.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

If there’s a split in the two singles matches, the tie will come down to the doubles, which will be played with a match tiebreak instead of a third set. Gabriela Dabrowski is Canada’s doubles ace-in-the-hole with her current No. 5 WTA ranking. “It’s really nice to have the doubles played after two singles instead of potentially after three or four (as in the old format),” she said, “so I’m really excited about that prospect. It definitely carries a lot more weight than it might previously have.”

Marino or Carol Zhao are the likely partners for Dabrowski.

Following the match-up with France on Monday, Canada is right back in action on Tuesday in its three-team group (winner advancing to the semi-finals) against the Russian Tennis Federation. The RTF, along with Switzerland, is the only team in Prague with the full complement of its top-ranked players led by Roland Garros finalist and current world No. 16 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and No. 28 Daria Kasatkina.

Bruneau, Tennis Canada’s Head of Women’s Pro and Transition Tennis, was a BJK Cup coach from 2004-2010 and captain from 2010 to 2018 before assuming a full-time coaching role with Andreescu. He likes the new format. “It’s easier to have upsets in a two-out-three format than the old three-out-of-five. I think there’s a chance we’ll have more surprises and it makes every match more important.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

The last-minute naming of the single players creates more unknowns in terms of preparation. If a captain doesn’t choose the expected players, just an hour before a match is not much time to game-plan for the opposition. Marino suggested that between help from Bruneau, team coach Nathalie Tauziat and some video study, she thinks she can be ready for any situation.

All reports from Prague indicate the Czechs have done an excellent job preparing for the Finals after the late venue move from Budapest to Prague was announced in August. It’s being held in the 18,000 capacity O2 Arena where the inaugural Laver Cup took place in 2017. The space has been divided and one part of the arena is Centre Court where Canada plays France on Monday and the other is Court One where it faces RTF on Tuesday.

Rules have been strict in accordance with COVID-19 protocols and the team captains are supposed to wear masks when speaking to players on court.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Canada is in the BJK Cup Finals after its 4-0 victory over Serbia moved its team ranking up to No. 10, giving it the final spot in the draw because the wild card allotted to Hungary was no longer necessary after the location change. The opening was created because the hosts, the No. 4-ranked Czechs, didn’t require a wild card.

So there’s really no pressure and fairly low expectations for the Canadian team, which is fine with an optimistic Bruneau. “I believe, if even on paper we’re lesser ranked, that everything is possible.”

He’s substituting for captain Heidi el Tabakh whose approaching marriage made matters complicated and not worth taking the risk of possibly contacting COVID-19 while traveling.

The two ties against France and the Russian Tennis Federation will both begin at 10:30 a.m. in Prague, which is 5:30 a.m. ET in Canada. Sportsnet is carrying the tie in English with Caroline Cameron and Sharon Fichman handling the commentary while Arash Madani is at the O2 Arena. TVA Sports has it in French with Frédéric Lord and Vincent Destouches calling the action. 

Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak