Photo : Joe Ng
Leylah Annie Fernandez is a whirlwind of perpetual motion and ambition on the tennis court. That led to a pair of one-sided wins in a total of just an hour and 53 minutes against Latvian players Darja Semenistaja on Friday and Daniela Vismane on Saturday.
Luckily for the suspense quotient of the Qualifier weekend of Billie Jean King Cup action at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, Rebecca Marino needed even more time on court Friday – two hours and seven minutes – for her win over Vismane than Fernandez did in her match victories by scores of 6-1, 6-2 against Semenistaja and 6-2, 6-1 versus Vismane.
Marino’s hard-fought match was in doubt until deep into the final set of her 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-3 win. Those results gave Canada an insurmountable 3-0 lead against Latvia and earned it a spot in the BJK Cup Finals in November.
Fernandez, 19 years old and ranked No. 21, was close to impeccable against Vismane on Saturday, showing off her ability to play a variation of tennis ping-pong – hitting the ball crazy early with a devastating combination of angles, depth and power.
To put things in some kind of perspective, it has to be remembered she was matched with players ranked No. 389 (19-year-old Semenistaja) and No. 267 (21-year-old Vismane).
On her way to the 2021 US Open final, she defeated three top-10 players – Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka – so opposition such as Semenistraja and Vismane presented a totally different challenge on the Laykold indoor hard court. “You just have to step on the court with the same respect that you have when I’m facing Naomi, Aryna and Elina,” Fernandez said. “You have to have the same respect when you’re going to face Darja or Daniela because they earned their spot on the team and they earned their spot to be on court today. It’s all a mental game and once you’re able to find that space in your head, everything can fall into place.”
As she did against Marino on Friday, Vismane competed intensely the whole match but she was unable to counter a relentless Fernandez onslaught that resulted in a winners to unforced errors ratio of 23/11 and a full-on, pressure return game that only allowed her opponent to win 25 per cent of second-serve points.
“I’m very happy with the way I played,” Fernandez said. “Yesterday (against Semenistaja) I was a little more nervous than today. But that’s normal. I knew she (Vismane) would be a little more aggressive and I just tried to concentrate on myself and put keep more balls in play and make her play more. And I want to get better in the next few tournaments.”
What are those tournaments? “I think the first tournament will be in Madrid (starting April 28), then Rome and then French Open,” she said. “Afterwards we have no idea what’s going to happen for the remainder of the year.” As well as Fernandez’s blinding performances, the weekend will be remembered for Marino’s gritty win on Friday, and for the therapeutic experience of playing in her hometown two years after the death of her father and in the preliminary stages of the city and the country emerging from the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There was an emotional moment after the Fernandez match when Marino and her mother Catherine were interviewed by Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron about Joe Marino (above at Wimbledon in 2011) who died at age 59 exactly two years to the day from Marino’s victory over Vismane on Friday.
“It marks two years from my father’s passing on April 15th,” Marino said. “For me to have gotten the win on that special anniversary, surrounded by our friends and family – the first (pandemic) time we could be together – I think that was a great way to honour my father, his legacy. I’m really proud of that.”
About playing on the actual anniversary, she said, “it served as an incredible motivator. At different points through the match I’d be like ‘what would my dad do? I know how he fought. I need to bring that fight to this match.’ Many times when I’m on court whether it’s here, or during other moments in the year, I always think of that and it really spurs me on no matter how I’m feeling.”
In the doubles match that wrapped up the weekend of BJK Cup Qualifier action, Canadians Gabriela Dabrowski and Carol Zhao combined to defeat Semenistaja and Vismane, substituting for the previously-named Latvian pair, by the score of 6-3, 6-1.
With the victory, Canada heads to the BJK Cup Finals to be held at a site still to be determined from November 8-13.
It joins 2021 runner-up Switzerland, Australia, Belgium and Slovakia as well as the six other winners of this weekend’s Qualifiers – Czech Republic, Italy, Kazakhstan, Poland, Spain, United States – and potentially a wild card from the eventual host nation.
With a full roster – Fernandez ranked No. 21, Marino at No. 111, Dabrowski No. 9 in doubles and Bianca Andreescu at No. 120 (and a current protected ranking of No. 22) – Canada would be among the favourites to win the 60th edition of the BJK Cup, known as the Fed Cup until it was rebranded in 2020.
Captain Heidi El Tabakh confirmed that notion when she said about possible success in November, “I think first of all it’s having a healthy team. If we have all our top players and hopefully they’re up for it and want to play for their country. I really do believe that if we have a solid team of top players including Bianca, Leylah, Rebecca, Gaby, Carol and Genie – hopefully she’s back and healthy and playing on tour – I think we have a good chance. That’s where we belong.”
Fernandez was even more unequivocal on court following her win Saturday. Boldly and enthusiastically she declared about the Billie Jean King Cup Finals, “we can win it” to wild cheers from the Pacific Colesium crowd.
Feature Photo: Joe Ng