Playing away from home and without its best players, the Canadian Fed Cup team was always in tough territory for this weekend’s World Group play-off against the Czech Republic in Prostejov.

The end result – a 3-0 victory for the host country – was no surprise but the visiting Canadians can take pride after giving a max effort that ended in Rebecca Marino’s 6-3, 6-4 loss to Czech No. 1 Marketa Vondrousova in Sunday’s opening singles match.

While both Marino and 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez gave all they had in Saturday’s two straight-set singles losses with one-sided second sets, on Sunday Marino sustained her level throughout. She generally served well, despite making only 53 per cent of first serves, and was impressive trading ground strokes from the baseline at a furious pace with the no. 47-ranked Vondrousova.

Marino was broken twice in the opening set and caught off guard by several drop shots by the 19-year-old Czech. But in the second set she stepped up, breaking in the opening game and holding serve and the lead until 4-3.

Vondrousova managed to level at 4-all with a break of serve when she won the last two points on long, hard-hitting exchanges with Marino going toe-to-toe until the final strike. A break of serve in the last game and Vondrousova had the win and the 3-0 margin the Czechs needed to clinch the best-of-five match tie.

It was a stellar effort by Marino against an in-form player who reached the quarter-finals of both Indian Wells and the Miami Open in March.

To put things in perspective, here are the rankings of the last 10 players Vondrousova played in Indian Wells and Miami – 105, 14, 22, 2 (beating Simona Halep), 6, 47, 23, 14, 62 and 7. Contrast that with the last 10 players Marino faced at four recent ITF events in Japan – 474, 332, 374, 240, 233, 211, 272, 302, 257 and 424.

That Marino was able to be competitive with Vondrousova – on a clay surface that may not be the best for her power game – has to give her confidence going forward, particularly for the qualifying at the French Open.

“Compared to yesterday, I really raised my level and I felt a lot more comfortable,” Marino said about her performance on Sunday. “We were neck and neck in both sets and I’m really proud of my effort out there.”

Captain Heidi El Tabakh confirmed that notion, saying: “I was very pleased with the way Rebecca fought today, and she was moving better. I know that if she keeps up that level she’s going to get back to where she belongs.”

While the no. 184-ranked Marino’s play is a positive in the narrative of her comeback over the past year and three months, Fernandez’s grit in her spirited 6-4, 6-1 loss to Vondrousova on Saturday was an eye-opener for many about the spunky left-hander from Laval, Que. She showed terrific shot-making ability, unwavering concentration and exceptional movement – trading shot for shot with a top-50 opponent.

Exactly two years ago in a Fed Cup tie against Kazakhstan in Montreal, another precocious 16-year-old narrowly lost in three sets to no. 31 Yulia Putintseva and then beat no. 51 Yaroslava Shvedova, impressing everyone with her drive and exceptional ball-striking skills.

That was Bianca Andreescu and everyone knows what has happened in the meantime. That’s not so say the currently no. 376-ranked Fernandez will equal or surpass Andreescu, but at least she seems to be on the right track.

And in her own mind she believes. After holding her own in the loss to Vondrousova on Saturday, Fernandez said: “I’ve always known I have the game to be in the top-50 because it’s always been my goal to be World No. 1. Today playing against her, it was an amazing feeling to see where my level is at and I’m pretty sure I’m close.”

Fernandez’s talent has not gone unnoticed by her older Fed Cup teammates – all of whom are at least 10 years her senior. “I was really impressed with Leylah,” the 28-year-old Marino said. “I know her pretty well now and she’s always really professional and giving a maximum effort. For her first Fed Cup experience, she blew my mind. She hung in there and fought to the end, proving what an up-and-coming star she is.”

El Tabakh chimed in, adding about Fernandez: “It was a great learning experience for the young one. I’m sure she’s going to use it for the upcoming weeks. She gained a lot of confidence knowing that she can hang with the top players. I think someone like Leylah is going to break into the top hundred in the next year.”

The tie officially came to a close at the Agrofert Arena at the National Tennis Centre with Czechs Barbora Krejcikova and Lucie Safarova defeating Gabriela Dabrowski and Sharon Fichman 7-6(4), 7-5 in an entertaining and hard-fought doubles encounter. It was the Fed Cup farewell match for the 32-year-old Safarova playing in her 22nd tie.

“The doubles today was really high quality,” said El Tabakh. “They (Dabrowski and Fichman) haven’t played together in three years – not even in practice – and I thought they played world-class tennis against two of the best doubles players in the world.”

The result this past weekend would normally mean that no. 11-ranked Canada would fail to gain promotion to World Group I and remain in World Group II in 2020.

But it appears likely a new format will be introduced next year with a grand finale grouping of Fed Cup teams playing at a single site – similar to what is happening with Davis Cup in November in Madrid. That would probably be preceded by a qualifying round in February, 2020 – similar to what Canada did this past February in Davis Cup when it won in Slovakia.

So it seems as if change is coming. Petr Pala, captain of the no. 1-ranked Czech team, implied as much when he said, summing up after Sunday’s victory: “Both teams came here without their top two players and I’m glad to be winning like this after three singles matches. That gives you confidence for future no matter what the system is going to be like.”

In the next few months that “system” should become more precise and Canada, if Bianca Andreescu, Genie Bouchard and Francoise Abanda are available to join the players who participated this past weekend, should become a legitimate challenger for the ultimate prize – the Fed Cup.

Safarova Tribute

One of the most popular women on the pro tour, 32-year-old Lucie Safarova, was feted after she and Barbora Krejcikova won the 4th match in doubles on Sunday.

The 32-year-old Czech was playing in her 22nd and final Fed Cup tie since 2004 – but the doubles victory (1-4) was her first to go with a 13-11 record in singles.

That lack of success in doubles is surprising for such a highly-regarded doubles player. Safarova explained herself afterwards, saying: “We always played after we won (at the end of their Fed Cup ties) so I didn’t have the best focus. But this time I really wanted to win because it’s my last one.”

Her highest ranking in singles was No. 5 (2015) and she won seven singles titles including Quebec City in 2013. Her career singles highlight was reaching the 2015 French Open final (Serena Williams) while being coached by Canadian Rob Steckley.

In doubles, Safarova ranked No. 1 (2017) and won five Grand Slam titles (but not Wimbledon) – all with Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Her career earnings were over $12 million (US).