view of the arena in kraljevo

Canadian Billie Jean King Cup captain Heidi El Tabakh has been known to lose track of time and refer to her team’s last outing as being two years ago. But she quickly catches herself and remembers it was in fact just in February, 2020, in Biel, Switzerland.

El Tabakh can be forgiven for getting a bit confused in these pandemic times – who hasn’t mixed up the years as the world continues to stagnate in the grip of Covid-19?

There is an inspiration El Tabakh and her players can take from last year’s 3-1 loss in Biel – the outstanding performance by the then 17-year-old Leylah Fernandez. She upset No. 5-ranked Belinda Bencic 6-2, 7-6(3) in the third match to keep Canadian hopes alive.

That’s relevant this week as Canada plays in Kraljevo (population about 70,000), Serbia, bidding for place in next year’s qualifiers and a chance earn a spot in the 12-nation 2022 Billie Jean King Cup Finals.

The No. 72-ranked Fernandez is coming off her first WTA title in Monterrey, Mexico, last month and will lead a Canadian team – on an indoor hard court in the Kraljevo Sport Hall. Absent for the visitors will be Bianca Andreescu (injured after the Miami Open final and preparing for the clay-court season), Genie Bouchard (in a training block for the clay season) and Gabriela Dabrowski (with a lingering plantar fasciitis issue and wanting to avoid going from clay to hard court and then back to clay).

rebecca marino runs a drill with leylah fernandez

The heavy lifting will be mainly on the shoulders of Fernandez who has shown tremendous progress in moving up the WTA rankings and in establishing herself as one of the tour’s grittiest competitors.

“She’s just an amazing player,” said teammate Rebecca Marino, 30. “I’ve had the opportunity to practice with her a fair amount over the last few years. She has an incredible work ethic and is definitely maturing in terms of coming into her own. She has a genuinely kind personality and is very humble. We’re all very happy for her and it’s very exciting having someone so young doing so well.”

leylah fernandez prepares for volley

Marino, who struggled with plantar fasciitis in 2020, has had a strong start to 2021 – qualifying in Dubai for the Australian Open and then winning a round at Melbourne Park as well as qualifying and getting through the first round of the Philip Island Trophy tournament the second week of the first Grand Slam of the year. She will most likely be the second singles player from a squad that also includes Sharon Fichman and Carol Zhao.

Playing her first match since Australia in Bellinzona, Switzerland, last week on clay – “It wasn’t ideal but there are limited tournaments right now,” Marino explained – she was beaten by an Italian qualifier Lucrezia Stefanini 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(4) in very windy conditions in a match that ended at 10:30 pm. Partnered with Yuki Naito of Japan, Marino then stayed around to win three doubles matches in reaching the final.

“Hard courts are my bread and butter, so I’m always happy to come back to hard courts,” the No. 230-ranked Marino said about the low-bouncing surface in Kraljevo.

team canada chats on court in practice

Fernandez has also had a little disappointment at her last two events since her triumph in Monterrey – not unexpectedly losing in first-round Miami Open qualifying the day following her breakthrough triumph in Mexico and then bowing out in the second round to No. 91 Danke Kovinic at the WTA 500 event in Charleston last week. That loss didn’t look so bad when the often-injured Montenegrin went on to upset No. 11 Petra Kvitova, No. 31 Yulia Putintseva and No. 28 Ons Jabeur on her way to the final.

Starting Friday for the opening singles, Serbia will likely select its two top players – No. 87-ranked Nina Stojanovic, 24, and No. 162 Olga Danilovic, 20. Also on the team are No. 220 Aleksandra Krunic, 28, (who Marino beat 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 in 2011 Fed Cup play in Novi Sad), No. 237 Ivana Jorovic, 23, and unranked Lota Radivojevic, 16.

Stojanovic has a solid 8-5 record in 2021 and two weeks ago reached the third round of the Miami Open before giving a walkover to Naomi Osaka due to a right thigh injury. So far in 2021 she has beaten No. 74 Irina-Camelia Begu, No. 89 Martina Trevisan, No. 65 Heather Watson and No. 28 Putintseva.

Danilovic is 6-5 for the 2021 season and qualified for both the Australian Open and the Miami Open. At nearly 6-foot, the rangy lefthander comes by her size naturally, her father Predrag was one of the best European basketball players of the 1990s.

She is also the answer the trivia question ‘who’s the last player to beat Bianca Andreescu at the US Open?’ Danilovic did that in the first round of 2018 qualifying at Flushing Meadows at the end of a summer when Andreescu was struggling to get over a nagging back injury.

rebecca marino holding racquet in practice

This weekend’s tie – two singles Friday and two singles followed by a doubles on Saturday – will be on Sportsnet One beginning at 8 am ET Friday and will be played without fans in the 4,125-seat Kraljevo Sport Hall.

It certainly won’t seem like Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup) or Davis Cup without the hot sauce element of a partisan home crowd and the interplay of opposing support groups. “I think it’s the right choice with all the precautions we’re taking here,” El Tabakh said about the situation. “It’s definitely an advantage because I know the Serbian crowd can get pretty wild.”

Added Marino, “They won’t have that home crowd being loud and trying to distract us. It does neutralize things a little bit.”

coach heidi helps out in practice

Tabakh (above) is now in her 4th tie as captain after succeeding Sylvain Bruneau in 2019 and starting with a 4-0 debut victory in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Since then there have been losses in more away ties in the Czech Republic and Switzerland. “I feel more confidence and I know we’ve had a couple of tough ties in the past,” Tabakh said. “I’m definitely getting tougher and dealing with stressful situations a little bit better.”

There are bound to be some of those this weekend, and there is an unlikely connection to her Serbian counterpart – Dusan Vemic, a former ATP doubles player (career-high No. 31) who has played doubles with Novak Djokovic and worked in his coaching team. The 44-year-old is making his debut as captain and his experience includes being the coach of the Serbian team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The odd twist this weekend will be that when El Tabakh looks over past the umpire’s chair at the Serbian captain, she will see a man who is currently married and living in Canada, in the Toronto area.

“I’ve known him for a while, he played some doubles when I was still a player,” El Tabakh said about Vemic. “I think he’s a good coach. He’s worked with some top players on tour like (Andrea) Petkovic, so he’s got a lot of experience.

“This is his first time as a captain. I know what it’s like as a captain for the first time and how stressful and nervous I was.”

On his Twitter account, Vemic styles himself as a “Tennis GURU,” so El Tabakh best be prepared for an unconventional surprise or two from her wily opposite number of the Serbian side. 

sharon fichman hits the practice courts

There’s a decent chance the best-of-five match tie could be decided before the fifth (doubles) match. If it is not, Canada is surely going to count on current WTA doubles No. 54-ranked Fichman, who reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open in February playing with Giuliana Olmos of Mexico. Fichman, playing in her 29th tie in a 16-year Fed/Billie Jean King Cup career, could be paired with any of Fernandez, Marino or Zhao depending on the situation.

Canada is currently No. 13 in the Billie Jean King Cup rankings while the Serbs are No. 19 – although numbers don’t mean much in a match-up that could turn out to be very competitive.

NOTE: Back tomorrow, after the draw, with a look at the Friday’s match-ups.