A 3-0 loss to Romania playing away in Cluj-Napoca this weekend was not a surprise for Canada’s team in the Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group II 2018 opening round.
Even without world no. 2 Simona Halep, Romania’s best players – no. 37 Irina-Camelia Begu and no. 38 Sorana Cirstea – were going to be tough to handle for Canada led by no. 138 Carol Zhao and no. 173 Bianca Andreescu.
The tie wound up Sunday when no. 319 Katherine Sebov was substituted for Zhao in the third match and was beaten 6-2, 6-4 by Begu. In the pro forma doubles after the result had been decided, Gabriela Dabrowski and Zhao outplayed Romanians Raluca Olaru and Ana Bogdan 4-6, 6-1, [10-6] in what Zhao described as “a fun atmosphere” before a full-house in the 9,000 capacity Sala Polivalenta.
Sebov, who has struggled with shoulder and arm issues at times during her young career, was probably a smart substitute for Zhao. The 19-year-old from Toronto had her moments when she was able to counter the explosive 5-foot-11 Begu but they were too rare and the 27-year-old from Bucharest dominated from the baseline.
Andreescu was the only Canadian capable of playing toe-to-toe with the heavy-hitting Romanians as she showed in her hard-fought 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-2 loss to Begu on Saturday.
In hindsight, if the lower-ranked Sebov had played in Saturday’s opening singles against the Romanians, Andreescu would have been Canadian No. 1 and been guaranteed a second shot on Sunday because the respective No. 1s are matched in the third match. But that’s easy to say looking back – captain Sylvain Bruneau (above) and the Canadian brain-trust know best and opted for Zhao over Sebov on the first day.
There are two main takeaways from the World Group II first round loss for the Canadians – going forward the team will be focused on Andreescu in singles and Gabriela Dabrowski in doubles.
Looking ahead to the World Group II play-offs on April 21-22 – match-ups to be determined by a draw at International Tennis Federation headquarters in London on Tuesday at 10 a.m. (5 a.m. ET in Canada) – there could be a much different team for Canada.
The two glaring absentees in Cluj-Napoca were no. 116-ranked Genie Bouchard and no. 123 Francoise Abanda. Both elected not to play and were missed – Bouchard is capable of being a threat and Abanda actually beat Begu 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in Fed Cup in Montreal three years ago.
Hypothetically, if Bouchard and/or Abanda is added to the team, that would increase its potency significantly. As well there’s an additional possibility. Rebecca Marino has showed impressive form (see below) in her comeback, albeit against inferior competition. The 27-year-old is six-feet tall and has an awesome serve that’s very difficult to return for many players. Add her to a mix that included Andreescu, Abanda, Bouchard and Dabrowski (above) and Canada could field an imposing team with several options, regardless of surface or playing conditions.
Whatever the make-up of the team, Tuesday’s draw could be the determining factor as to whether Canada maintains its spot in World Group II (a win in April) or drops down to Americas zonal play (a loss) in 2019.
Here are two extreme possibilities. Canada plays home or away against a Latvian team featuring two top 20 players – no. 6-ranked Jelena Ostapenko and no. 15 Anastasija Sevastova. Or it plays a Paraguayan team, fresh off a victory in Americas zone action this weekend, that has no. 84 Veronica Cepede-Royg and no. 366 Monserrat Gonzalez.
And there’s always the matter of home-and-away and surface. The World Group II play-off in April is right before the first major WTA clay court event of the season – the Premier-level Porsche Tennis Grand Prix (indoor) tournament in Stuttgart. If Canada played at home on a hard court, that might not be as convenient, and certainly not as attractive, for a European opponent.
So a lot rides on the luck of the draw in London on Tuesday – maybe just as much as who’s part of the Canadian team for the next tie.
MARINO MARCHES ON
For the second week in a row, Rebecca Marino, 27, has won a $15,000 ITF tournament in Antalya, Turkey. Counting the qualifying for the first event two weeks ago, she has now won 12 matches in a row following her 6-4, 6-1 victory in Sunday’s final over Nina Stadler of Switzerland. Over that time she has yet to lose a set.
This past week, though all her opponents were ranked between no. 755 (Stadler) and no. 447 (Gaia Senesi of Italy), these have been Marino’s match scores: 6-4, 6-1 / 6-3, 6-1 / 6-2, 6-1 / 6-1, 6-1 / 6-1, 6-4.
She has now earned (12+12) 24 WTA ranking points, which would put her at about no. 735 and she could earn another 12 this week if she wins, which would give her an official (three tournaments required) WTA ranking of roughly no. 630.
To put things in perspective, if she wins again this week that would be 17 match wins and a total of 36 points for that approximate no. 630 ranking – a first round winner at the Rogers Cup gets 60 points for a single match. So the sooner Marino can get into higher-stakes competition, the faster she can climb up the rankings.
Her career high was no. 38 in 2011 when she was 20 years old.
While it’s premature to speculate about how high she can rise once she faces stiffer competition, it’s safe to say things couldn’t be going any better so far.
POSPISIL DOUBLES UP
Vasek Pospisil won his second Challenger event in the past three weeks when he defeated Nikola Kuhn of Spain 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-3 in the final of the Hungarian Challenger Open in Budapest on Sunday. He also won the title at the Rennes, France Challenger tournament two weeks ago.
Despite playing another three-setter after defeating Nikola Milojevic of Serbia 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 in Saturday’s semifinal, Pospisil was the stronger player in the final set – hitting aggressively from the baseline and frequently outwitting the no. 237-ranked Kuhn with his skill at the net.
The 90 ATP points he earned for the victory will not make much difference to Pospisil’s current no. 85 ranking – just moving it up to no. 83 because he was defending finalist points from a year ago at a Challenger in San Francisco.
He now plans to spend two weeks in Belgrade, the home of his fitness trainer, and will then head to Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open where he will be with Rainer Schuettler, the former world no. 5 (2004), as his coach.
Kuhn, 17, will now partner 17-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime in the Budapest doubles final as they face the top seeds, Croatian brothers Marin and Tomislav Draganja.
CLUJ-NAPOCA POST CARD
Look closely at those letters. These people should get free pizza – even the guy with the upside down ‘O’.
Feature Photo: Kyle Clapham/Tennis Canada