Leylah Annie Fernandez will play her first Fed Cup match when Canada faces the Czech Republic in a World Group Playoff this weekend.
The 16-year-old from Montreal will be joined by 28-year-old Rebecca Marino of Vancouver for the opening singles on Saturday on an indoor red clay court at the National Tennis Centre in Prostejov, a city of 44,000 in the eastern part of the Czech Republic.
Marino, playing her fifth Fed Cup singles match (2-2), will take on Czech No. 2 player Karolina Muchova in the first match Saturday at 1:30 p.m. (7:30 a.m. ET in Canada) followed by Fernandez against Czech No. 1 Marketa Vondrousova.
As posted at the draw ceremony (in the Prostejov city hall), Marino and Fernandez are scheduled to play the reverse singles on Sunday at noon (6 a.m. ET in Canada) with the respective doubles team for the fifth match being Gabriela Dabrowski and Sharon Fichman for Canada and Marie Bouzkova and Barbora Krejcikova for the Czechs.
The best-of-five match tie is notably missing top players on both sides – with No. 3-ranked Petra Kvitova, No. 4 Karolina Pliskova and No. 41 Katerina Siniakova absent for the Czechs. Shoulder injuries have prevented both No. 23 Bianca Andreescu and No. 244 Francoise Abanda from playing for Canada as they did in the Netherlands in a 3-0 victory in February. No. 81 Genie Bouchard is off the tour at the moment.
The more-experienced Czechs will be daunting opposition for the Canadians with the No. 106-ranked Muchova starting 2019 impressively 14-5 in singles. That includes qualifying and reaching the third round in Doha (Elina Svitolina) and qualifying and reaching the second round in Miami (Angelique Kerber).
No. 47-ranked Vondrousova, who beat Bouchard 6-4, 6-3 in the 2018 US Open second round, is even more impressive with a 13-4 record this year. She made the quarter-finals of both Indian Wells, where she beat No. 2-ranked Simona Halep, and Miami.
Both players might have even better records except for compatriot Pliskova, who beat Vondrousova, 19, in Miami and Muchova, 22, in the first round of the Australian Open. She also ousted Bouzkova, 20, in the second round in Brisbane.
Fernandez (above with Vondrousova) doesn’t turn 17 until September and already has had a stellar junior record. She reached the semi-final of the 2018 French Open juniors girls singles and the final of this year’s Australian Open girls’ event. Those events are skewing younger because she lost to an even younger 16-year-old, Clara Tauson of Denmark, in Australia and to 14-year-old American phenom Cori Gauff at Roland Garros last year when she herself was only 15.
Currently No. 7 in the International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior rankings, Fernandez has compiled an 11-4 record in 2018 at ITF tour-level events in Launceston (Australia), Nishi-Tama (Japan), and two tournaments in Canberra (Australia).
“It’s been amazing so far,” the left-handed Fernandez said about her initial Fed Cup experience. “The girls have helped me a lot during the week. (Captain) Heidi (el Tabakh) and (coach) Nathalie (Tauziat), they’ve been helping me on the court getting through practices and how to manage matches and how to manage the week. Czech Republic has been amazing hosts so far, they’ve been nothing but nice to us – giving us tours and helping us with whatever we need. I’m super happy to be here and I’m excited to play this weekend.
“I understand that Fed Cup is a different vibe, a different experience from any other tournament so to be here and experience it is amazing.”
Currently ranked No. 376, Fernandez added about the Czech players: “I don’t know anything but I know that the Czech Republic is a tough team. It will a tough match this weekend and I hope I’ll play my best.”
Her opponent Voudrousova, also left-handed, is a hard-hitting baseliner unlike Marino’s opponent Muchova, very much an all-court player with a lot of flair in her game.
“I know we have a tough challenge ahead against the Czech Republic who won the Fed Cup last year,” said the No. 184-ranked Marino. “We’re up for the challenge. We’re ready to work hard and we have a really good team dynamic right now. So I’m really excited.”
Marino (above with Muchova) had a slow start to 2019 as she recovered from a late-season back injury in 2018. But she has reached a final and a quarter-final in her last two ITF events in Kashiwa and Osaka, Japan.
“My tennis has been coming along slowly,” she said. “It was difficult at the start of the year coming off an injury but I think my results have kind of shown that I’m gaining momentum. I think right now is a chance to show that I’m back feeling really good, healthy and confident.”
El Tabakh, in her second tie as captain after leading Canada to that win over the Netherlands in February in ’s-Hertogenbosch, obviously knows it’s a huge challenge entering this weekend’s match-up with the Fed Cup No. 1-ranked Czechs without the two players – Andreescu and Abanda – who led Canada to victory in February.
“We know we’re going against a very tough opponent and it’s not going to be easy,” said the 32-year-old el Tabakh, who played on the tour for almost 15 years, reaching a career-high ranking of No. 146 in 2012. “I know we’re ready. We’ve put in the work. The girls are eager to play and excited for this weekend. We’re looking forward to it.”
Unlike the new Davis Cup format where the doubles is the first match on the second day, doubles in Fed Cup is the fifth and final match and would only come into play only if the teams are 2-2 after the four singles matches. If that materializes this weekend, the Czechs would have WTA No. 2-ranked Krejcikova as their leader while Dabrowski, currently No. 15, would be Canada’s highest ranked player with Fichman, on the comeback trail, at No. 192 after limited play.
Lucie Safarova, 32, is on the Czech team but is retiring this year and has not played any matches since Quebec City last September. She would only be a candidate, and a very unlikely one at that, for the doubles. Strangely enough, for a player who has ranked No. 1 in doubles (2017) and won five Grand Slam doubles titles, Safarova is 0-4 in Fed Cup doubles over the 13 ties she played since 2004.
El Tabakh will be facing an experienced opposition captain in Petr Pala. A former ATP doubles No. 10 (2001), Pala has been captain since 2008 and has led his Czech teams to six victories over the past eight years.
This weekend’s tie is being played at Agrofert Arena, which has seating for about 1,200.
The only available coverage in Canada is on Sportsnet Now – SN NOW – and can be accessed at Sportsnet.ca and click on ‘video’ or at FedCup.com and click on ‘watch live.’