The Fed Cup World Group II draw was done Friday at the Hilton Hotel in Quebec City and as can be readily seen above there was no Victoria Azarenka or Genie Bouchard as members of their respective Belarusian and Canadian teams.
Bouchard has been a no-go since the second week of the Australian Open when she announced she would be training and not be available for the Canadian team’s opening round in 2016. She was never listed officially as being on the team.
It was quite the opposite with Azarenka – she was among the four Belarusian players on the roster of the team submitted January 27, 10 days before the tie.
It’s not entirely clear what the Belarusian story is: was Azarenka holding out to make sure Bouchard didn’t somehow magically appear at the last moment – an hour before the draw ceremony on Friday in Quebec City? Or has she been ill as was suggested in a tweet she made (below) earlier this week? (That first emoji is a thermometer in the mouth.)
— victoria azarenka (@vika7) February 2, 2016
The matter was further complicated when new No. 1 Belarusian, Olga Govortsova, was asked about Azarenka’s absence during Friday’s the post-draw media conference. “We don’t know exactly,” the 27-year-old from Minsk said. “Maybe she has a little bit different schedule or doesn’t feel too well or wants to prepare better for the Olympics.”
After consulting with captain Eduard Dubrau, Govortsova (above) added little further information, saying about Azarenka, “she’s really sorry she couldn’t come. And he (Dubrau) doesn’t know the exact reason.”
So the two squads will be without their respective best players when the first ball is struck in the opening match at noon (EST) on Saturday. That match will feature Francoise Abanda, ranked No. 343 against No. 99-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Abanda, who turned 19 on Friday and celebrated with a birthday cake with her teammates, recalls being in the juniors with 21-year-old Sasnovich but not that they ever played. The 5-foot-11 Montrealer has struggled of late, dropping to her current ranking from a high of No. 175 in October, 2014.
As for the second match between veteran Aleksandra Wozniak and Govortsova, they met on grass in Birmingham, England, in 2009 with Wozniak winning 6-4, 6-4. But during the media conference neither seemed to be able to recall that encounter.
That was the same year Wozniak, now 28, reached a career-high ranking of No. 21. Her persistent shoulder problems the past few years, resulting in surgery in October, 2014, have resulted in limited play – just 11 (4-7 including going 0-2 in qualifying for Hobart and the Australian Open last month) matches since August and her current unflattering ranking of No. 803. Govortsova, 27 and ranked No. 74, is 6-feet tall and has had seven top-100 seasons in the last nine years with a career-high ranking of No. 35 in 2008.
“It’s obvious that Azarenka is their top player but they still have a good team,” said Canadian captain Sylvain Bruneau. “They have two players – Govortsova and Sasnovich – who were in the main draw at the Australian Open and another, 17-year (Vera) Lapko, who won the junior girls in Australia. They have lots of depth but it’s obvious Azarenka is a great player who can win Grand Slam titles. It doesn’t change things that much for us. We still have to play the matches and do our best.”
The best-of-five match tie will be played at the PEPS Arena on the campus of Laval University.
To replace Azarenka, the Belarusians have added 17-year-old Nika Shytkouskaya to the team. “Govortsova is a very aggressive, powerful player,” Bruneau said about the opposition’s singles players, “while Sasnovich controls the ball very well. We’ve been watching them in practice and they don’t have the same styles.”
At stake is a spot in the World Group Playoffs for the winner – a chance to be in the eight-team group that competes for the Fed Cup in 2017. That’s where Canada was in 2015 but losses to the Czech Republic a year ago in Quebec City and to Romania in Montreal last April meant Canada was demoted to World Group II.
It was only in the World Group for one year while Belarus has never reached the elite eight nations. It has competed in Fed Cup since 1991 after being part of the former Soviet Union. This is the Belarusians’ 22nd year – Canada is in the competition for its 53rd time.
Belarus went through a tough road in 2015 to finally get to World Group II – beating Georgia, Bulgaria, Portugal and Great Britain in Group I Europe/Africa round-robin action in Budapest, Hungary, in February before then beating Japan at Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo in the promotional playoff in April. All those victories came with two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka participating.
What both nations are hoping for is not to be relegated to Zonal competition for next year. That would happen if they lost this weekend and then in a playoff with other World Group II losers and the four countries that come up from Zonal Group I play later this spring.
What Canada wants to avoid is demotion to the 2017 Americas Group I zonal play like what is going on this weekend in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, with seven South American countries and Mexico competing.
The other members of the Canadian team are rookie Carol Zhao of Richmond Hill, Ont., and Gabriela Dabrowski from Ottawa. They won the doubles gold medal at the Pan American Games in August are listed as the doubles pairing for Sunday’s fifth match. The earlier singles matches on Sunday (also a noon EST start) would be Abanda versus Govortsova and Wozniak, playing her 50th (singles and doubles) match in Fed Cup, against Sasnovich.
Zhao, who has turned pro but will still be completing her studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, sang (above) at the Fed Cup dinner on Thursday night as part of her Fed Cup initiation.
The referee for this weekend’s tie is Norbert Peick of Germany while the umpires are Arnaud Gabas of France and Gabriela Zaloga of Poland.
When you're sick and you think about all the times you didn't appreciate breathing through your nose
— Genie Bouchard (@geniebouchard) February 5, 2016
Obviously Canada would like to have its best player, Bouchard with the team. Currently ranked No. 58 after failing to defend her 2015 quarter-final finish at this year’s Australian Open, Bouchard may not be in the best of health at the moment. In the tweet above, she suggests that she at least has a head cold.
Coverage is via Live Steam at Sportsnet.ca and in French on the TVA network.
Here’s a history of the past three years of Canada in Fed Cup:
Apr., 2015: World Group Playoff, Montreal
ROMANIA DEF. CANADA 3-1
Francoise Abanda def. Irina-Camelia Begu 4-6, 7-5, 6-4
Alexandra Dulgheru def. Eugenie Bouchard 6-4, 6-4
Andreea Mitu def. Eugenie Bouchard 4-6, 6-4, 6-1
Alexandra Dulgheru def. Francoise Abanda 3-6, 7-5, 6-2
Feb., 2015: World Group First Round, Quebec City
CZECH REPUBLIC DEF. CANADA 3-0
Karolina Pliskova def. Francoise Abanda 6-2, 6-4
Tereza Smitkova def. Gabriela Dabrowski 6-1, 6-2
Karolina Pliskova def. Gabriela Dabrowski 6-4, 6-2
Apr., 2014: World Group Playoff, Quebec City
CANADA DEF. SLOVAKIA 3-0
Aleksandra Wozniak def. Jana Cepelova 4-6, 7-5, 7-5
Eugenie Bouchard def. Kristina Kucova 7-6(0), 2-6, 6-1
Eugenie Bouchard def. Jana Cepelova7-6(6), 6-3
Feb., 2014: World Group II First Round, Montreal
CANADA DEF. SERBIA 3-0
Aleksandra Wozniak def. Vesna Dolonc 7-5, 2-6, 6-4
Eugenie Bouchard def. Jovana Jaksic 6-1, 6-0
Eugenie Bouchard def. Vesna Dolonc 6-0, 6-3
Apr., 2013: World Group II Playoff, Kiev, Ukraine
CANADA DEF. UKRAINE 3-2
Elina Svitolina def. Eugenie Bouchard 6-7(8), 6-3, 6-2
Sharon Fichman def. Lesia Tsurenko 7-6(5), 2-6, 6-3
Eugenie Bouchard def. Lesia Tsurenko 6-4, 7-5
Elina Svitolina def. Sharon Fichman 6-4, 7-6(4)
E. Bouchard/S. Fichman def. E. Svitolina/L. Tsurenko 6-4, 6-3
Feb., 2013: Group 1 Americas Group round robin, Medelin, Colombia
CANADA DEF. PERU, VENEZUELA, COLOMBIA
FINAL: CANADA DEF. BRAZIL 2-1
Paula Cristina Goncalves def. Sharon Fichman 0-6, 6-0, 6-4
Eugenie Bouchard def. Teliana Pereira 6-2, 6-2
G. Dabrowski/S. Fichman def. T. Pereira/L Pigossi 7-6(4), 7-5
Best of the rest
Probably the most fascinating Fed Cup tie of the weekend takes place in Leipzig, Germany where the visitors are the Swiss.
The singles players will be freshly-crowned Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic for the hosts and Belinda Bencic and Timea Bacsinszky for Switzerland.
It will be interesting to see how Kerber deals with her newfound Grand Slam champion status and also what happens if the tie is 2-all and which Swiss player is selected to team with doubles ace Martina Hingis for the decisive doubles.
Also interesting will be defending champion playing the Czechs in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. The Czechs with Petra Kvitova and Kristina Pliskova (even with ill Lucie Safarova absent) are a strong team, having won the Fed Cup four of the past five years. The Romanians will rely on Simona Halep who has been ill of late and will require nose surgery sometime in the new few months. She will be joined in singles by the unorthodox Monica Niculescu, who likes to slice off both backhand and forehand.
You have to think that one is advantage Czechs.
Quebec City post card
The Chateau Frontenac is the signature landmark of Quebec City. This picture was taken looking up from La Basse Ville (lower town).