Photo : Martin Sidorjak
It will be all on the line when Canada faces Switzerland on Friday for a spot in the semi-finals of the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Glasgow.
The match-up is loaded with incentives on both sides. From the Canadian perspective, there’s the fact that its team lost 3-1 in Biel, Switzerland in February, 2020. That was a Qualifier and disappointing for Canada with newly-crowned US Open champion Bianca Andreescu unable to play with a knee injury and Genie Bouchard hurting her wrist in her final practice session and having to withdraw.
That left it up to a 18-year-old, little-known at the time, Leylah Annie Fernandez and doubles stalwart Gabriela Dabrowski for singles. While Fernandez got the visitors a surprise win over Swiss No. 1 Belinda Bencic in the third match, Canada was beaten 3-1 without being able to field its best team.
The Swiss motivation heading into Friday’s final round-robin match-up – both teams scored 3-0 victories over Italy in their opening round-robin ties – dates back to something that happened in the BJK Cup Finals championship match-up against Russia in Prague a year ago.
After Russia won the first match, Bencic was slated to play Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second match, with her having a 5-2 (and four of the previous five matches) head-to-head advantage over the Russian. But just 40 minutes before Bencic was scheduled to face Pavlyuchenoka, Russian captain Igor Andreev substituted Liudmila Samsonova for Pavlyuchenkova in a dubious, but not illegal, move.
Samsonova had a 2-0 head-to-head advantage over Bencic, with both wins coming that very year. Samsonova wound up winning the match 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to clinch Russia’s fifth title in the competition.
Swiss captain Heinz Gunthardt and his players were livid about the Russians’ highly-questionable, last-minute maneuver and have been seething ever since – hoping to avenge that defeat with a victory at this year’s event.
After her win over Italy’s Jasmine Paolini on Wednesday, Bencic declared, “we’re waiting for Team Canada now.”
It should be an intriguing match-up starting with the No. 2 singles players. After an impressive opening-day 7-6(3), 6-3 victory over Italy’s Elisabetta Cocciaretto on Thursday, Andreescu will be a formidable opponent for the Swiss No. 2 player, who would logically be Jil Teichmann. The WTA No. 35 needed to save a match point against Cocciaretto on Wednesday in a hard-fought 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(5) victory.
Andreescu has a 2-1 record against Teichmann – including wins in their two most recent meetings – 6-2, 6-4 in Guadalajara last month and 6-1, 6-3 in Acapulco in 2019.
The other option for Switzerland would be No. 77-ranked Victorija Golubic. The 30-year-old and Andresscu have only played once with the 22-year-old Canadian scoring a tough 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 victory in the first round of the 2021 US Open.
Asked about the chances that Golubic might be substituted for Teichmann, Andreescu said, “maybe. I really can’t say. Either way, I’m going to play my best tennis. Hopefully give 100 per cent and – just play my heart out no matter what.”
About the possible switch, captain Sylvain Bruneau said, “there’s a chance. I know Bianca and Golubic played a really close match at the US Open in 2021, a really tough match in the first round. I’m not sure which card he (captain Heinz Gunthardt) is going to play. Whoever it is, it’s going to be a good opponent.”
As for the Bencic – Fernandez confrontation of the No. 1 singles players, the 20-year-old from Montreal leads their head-to-head 2-1. She won that Fed Cup (now BJK Cup) match in Biel in 2020 and their third-round meeting at this year’s French Open 7-5, 3-6, 7-5. Bencic then got some revenge last month in the opening round in Guadalajara 7-5, 6-7(10), 6-3.
Bencic won her first 2022 BJK Cup Finals match 7-5, 6-3 over No. 59-ranked Paolini on Wednesday but Fernandez bettered that Thursday with an immaculate 6-0, 6-0 steamrolling of No. 28 Martina Trevisan in a mere 41 minutes.
It was essentially total annihilation from the first ball, with Fernandez winding up winning 49 of 64 points. There was a sense that she wanted revenge for her 6-2, 6-7(3), 6-3 loss in the Roland Garros quarter-finals in May to the 29-year-old Italian.
From the early going in that match, Fernandez was bothered by what turned out to be a grade-three stress fracture on the top of her right foot. There’s no telling where her current ranking of No. 40 would be had she reached the semi-finals (or better) in Paris and then not missed all of June and July with the foot injury before returning at the National Bank Open pres in Toronto in early August.
One of the fiercest competitors in women’s tennis, there was a strong sense on Thursday in Court 1 at the Emirates Arena that retribution was on her mind.
“The game plan,” said Italian captain Tathiana Garbine about Trevisan versus Fernandez, “was to lose a little bit of the space (behind the baseline) but give a bit more spin like she played at Roland Garros. But it’s not easy because we know very well it’s not a clay court and there’s not enough time to do the game we wanted to development. It wasn’t easy but that was the game plan. She was not able to do it because our opponent (Fernandez) played great – an absolutely great match.”
After possibly the best performance of her young career, Fernandez, when asked to describe how she felt playing such incredible tennis, said, “I think I felt like just kind of elevated. I wasn’t really focused on anything that was going around me. I was very at peace with myself mentally and emotionally. And then after I was just enjoying my time on court.”
It was a phenomenal display by Fernandez and sends a message to Bencic for their likely match-up of No. 1s in the second match on Friday. About facing Bencic, Fernandez described her approach in very straight-forward terms, saying, “impose my game, follow the game plan and not too get frustrated – be solid mentally and emotionally.”
While Andreescu’s score with Cocciaretto wasn’t as decisive as Fernandez against Trevisan, after saving a set point trailing 5-2 in the opening set, she was clearly the better player – letting loose with her superior variety and shot-making ability.
“I kind of like playing when I’m down,” Andreescu explained about how she stepped it up after saving the set point, “so I raised my level somehow. There’s just a switch in my brain, and I just become more aggressive.”
If Canada and Switzerland split the singles on Friday, it would appear that Fernandez will team with Dabrowski for the doubles – especially after the Canadian pair combined to roll to a convincing 6-1, 6-1 victory on Thursday over Italians Paolini and No. 56-ranked Lucia Bronzetti.
Summing up an almost perfect day, captain Bruneau said, “at great level from the three players who were on the court today. They played super-good tennis. The team support, the team spirit is really high. We’re going to keep trying to do that tomorrow.”
NOTE: The Canada vs Switzerland tie will be on Sportsnet One and TVA Sports in Canada at 5:50 a.m. ET on Friday.