rebecca marino hi-fives her team after winning at the Billie Jean King Cup

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

Leylah Fernandez and Rebecca Marino gave Canada a 2-0 lead in its Billie Jean King Cup Playoff match-up with Serbia in Kraljevo on Friday.

First Fernandez stayed cool through nervy moments against big-hitting Olga Danilovic, 20, to finally pull off a 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 win in two hours and 34 minutes.

Then Marino survived a serious second-set challenge from No. 1 Serbian Nina Stojanovic, overcoming the 24-year-old 6-4, 7-6(6), but needing four match points to do it.

The Fernandez – Danilovic match reached its exciting climax in the final game, which had a bit of everything. After leading 5-2 and failing to serve out at 5-3 due to a few unforced errors and some big hitting by Danilovic, Fernandez took a love-30 lead on the Serb’s serve at 5-4 and appeared close to victory.

But then Danilovic played three gutsy, aggressive points to get to 40-30, just one away from leveling at 5-all. That made it Fernandez’s turn to step up with an sensational forehand angled service return winner to make it deuce and then two points later, facing another game point for Danilovic, she belted a forehand forcing shot that Danilovic couldn’t handle. On the following point Fernandez improvised a clever sliced forehand winner and took the match with a bit of good fortune when her forehand swing volley, a miss-hit, landed short and fooled Danilovic who couldn’t reach it before the ball bounced twice.

“It’s ‘let’s go for it,’ and hoping I don’t miss,” Fernandez explained about her approach at such a critical juncture in the match. “I was happy I was brave enough to go for my shots and happy that they went in. But you know at the end it’s was whoever was more offensive and whoever was able to put the ball in the court. I was happy that last point when there were a few shanked balls and one went my way.”

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

The first two sets were competitive. In the first, after Fernandez failed to turn a 40-love lead in the third game into a 3-0 advantage, and in the second until Danilovic finally got separation with a break of serve to 4-3.

There were very fine margins in the match with one thing working Fernandez’s favour – her more even-kneel temperament compared to Danilovic who tended to get irritable and flustered at some key moments.

Fernandez was easily the more opportunistic player – converting 2/2 in third-set break points while Danilovic was 1/4, overall in the match Fernandez was 6/7 while Danilovic was 5/14.

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

It was a compelling match, with Danilovic (above) being the slightly bigger hitter – 30 winners to 19 for Fernandez – and playing very impressively at times.

The stats sheet was not pretty in terms of unforced errors – as Danilovic had 65 and Fernandez 59. But that is misleading because many of the UEs came at the end of long, tough rallies will both players hitting out full bore.

At one point, Sportsnet commentator Patricia Hy-Boulais, the former world No. 28 (1993) and 1991 Canadian National champion, described the Fernandez presence on court saying, “she’s like a Nadal out there.” No doubt Fernandez, 18, has some of the single-minded focus and determination of the 34-year-old legendary Spaniard.

In the second match, Marino served well and hit her flat, hard ground strokes to dominate the first set, taking it with a break of serve in the final game. In the second, matters versus the No. 87-ranked Stojanovic got more complicated, particularly because she dropped serve three times in a row while leading by a break – at 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2.

But Marino rediscovered her service rhythm and eventually got to match point leading 6-5 only to narrowly miss a backhand long by an inch or two.

Stojanovic seemed to be coming on and have the momentum. But Marino stayed with her in the tiebreak – finally earning two more match points leading it 6-4. On the first Stojanovic hit a fine first serve that Marino couldn’t handle and on the second, Marino erred over the baseline with a shaky backhand. The one-hour-and-43-minute match had its final turn when Marino hit a service winner to 7-6 and watched as Stojanovic netted a backhand on the fourth and ultimate match point.

About the disappointment of failing to convert the first three match points – especially double match point leading 6-4 in the tiebreak, Marino said, “I knew that I probably would have another opportunity as some point. I was trying not to be too down on myself. I’ve played other matches where that’s happened and you kind of have to pick yourself back up and keep trying and going to the next one. It’s frustrating and discouraging sometimes, but my opponent is also fighting as well so I just have to keep pushing myself to get there.”

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

Marino, who had 10 aces and two double faults to three aces and four double faults for Stojanovic, also had 18 winners to just nine for the Serbian. The 30-year-old from Vancouver had solid serve numbers – making 69 per cent of first serves, winning 70 percent of first-serve points and 53 per cent of second-serve points.

“My serving was super-clutch today,” she said. “I felt my first serve was really strong weapon for me. And the second thing I was proud about was just my fighting spirit. I hung in there. It would have been easy to throw in the towel but when it really started getting tough I hung in there and really tried my best to stick in every point and not give up.”

The significance of Stojanovic’s No. 87 ranking was not lost on Marino, who reached a career-high WTA ranking of No. 38 ten years ago in 2011. “To get that top-100 win is super-clutch,” she said. “And to do it for my teammates with the maple leaf on the shoulder, I’m just so proud of myself and of the team for what we’ve done today.”

There have been a lifetime of experiences for Marino since her first Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) debut in Novi Sad, Serbia, in February, 2011. “I’m so motivated and passionate about tennis,” she exclaimed. “I’m appreciative of every moment I have on-court and I’d like to think that shows in my game right now.”

Photo : Srdjan Stevanovic

Captain Heidi El Tabakh spoke about her players: saying about Fernandez, “the teams cheering for you and being loud and it’s very easy to get a bit nervous. I think Leylah did but what I’m most proud of is she was able to pull it off even though she wasn’t playing completely free. I think Olga played really, really well and Leylah was able to handle her pace and hang in there. In the last two games – that’s when Leylah played her best tennis. And I know for a fact that tomorrow she’s going to come out firing (against Stojanovic). Now that she’s got that match under her belt, she’s going to play a lot more free.”

About Marino, El Tabakh summed up, “Rebecca started off playing super-aggressive, moving really well. She served really well. I think what I’m most proud of with Rebecca is her keeping her focus and also her toughness regardless of the score – getting broken in the second set. She stuck with the game plan and trusted her shots. She played like a top-50 player today.”

On Saturday, starting a 5 am ET in Canada – on Sportsnet One and TVA Sports – it will be Fernandez vs Stojanovic followed by Marino vs Danilovic. If the best-of-five tie is still alive, it will then be a decisive doubles with Sharon Fichman and Carol Zhao nominated for Canada and Danilovic and Aleksandra Krunic for the Serbs. Commenting on the unique experience of playing without a crowd, El Tabakh said, “it was definitely different. But we definitely felt the support from our team and staff and we’ve had a ton of support from back home. I want to say thank you to everyone at home for your encouraging messages and your videos – we really appreciate it. We’re very loud on the bench and the girls love that. It’s definitely different. But it is what it is – COVID times. So we make the most out of it.”