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Tebbutt: Sizing up the opposition

Feb 06, 2019
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

The captains of the Canadian and Dutch Fed Cup teams held media conferences on Wednesday – not giving away much and turning saying little into an art form.

Paul Haarhuis, the Dutch Fed Cup captain also doubles as Davis Cup captain and led his men over the Czech Republic in Ostrava last weekend to earn them a spot in November’s Davis Cup Final in Madrid.

He’s a past master at dealing with the media and, when asked Wednesday who would be playing singles for his team come Saturday in World Group II action in Den Bosch, replied, “two Dutch girls and also two are going to play the doubles.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

From anyone younger than his 52 years, that would have been viewed as a first class smart-ass remark. But the former ATP No. 1 in doubles (69 weeks) and No. 18 singles (1995) is well-regarded in the sport and has gravitas. He went on to explain about his possible choices, “that’s all I know so far and that’s all these girls know. They have no clue and they’ve asked the same question.

“Nobody has a secure spot yet in the singles or in the doubles although there are some favourites.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

It would appear likely the Netherlands top-ranking player – No. 129 Arantxa Rus – will be the No. 1 singles player with No. 150 Richel Hogenkamp (above) and No. 162 Bibiane Schoofs competing for the second spot. Rus, 28 and the 2008 Australian Open junior girls champion, has a 15-8 Fed Cup singles record and that is more impressive than the 26-year-old Hogenkamp (8-6) or the 30-year-old Schoofs (2-3).

Kiki Bertens, the No. 1 Dutchwoman at No. 8 in the WTA rankings, is an impressive 18-2 in Fed Cup singles. But she has declared herself out for this round as has No. 2 Canadian Genie Bouchard who is 12-4 in Fed Cup singles.

Lots of factors affect who plays and who does not play – and the Dutch have had six different singles players in their last four ties in 2017 and 2018.

“Last year we played in April in Australia,” Haarhuis said by way of explaining the revolving cast of Dutch Fed Cup characters. “It was during the clay-court season. It was an important time for some of these girls to maybe have the last chance to get points to get into the qualifying for Paris (Roland Garros). For another girl there were some other things going on in her life and for another one it was ‘oh, I have a big event the week after, so I cannot play.’ So there were all kinds of reasons.

“To be honest I really didn’t want to go to Australia in the middle of a totally different season. But that’s why we used some new girls.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

As for who Haarhuis thinks will play singles for Canada, he said, “I expect them to play (Bianca) Andreescu – she’s had a fantastic start to the season. She’s really the head woman of the team. Without (Genie) Bouchard she’s by far the one to look for to win the points if you want to count on something. I hope she feels the pressure that she has to come in and do the job for the team. Then either (Rebecca) Marino or (Francoise) Abanda – Abanda (left) played some clay-court events before (coming to Den Bosch).

“They are the favourites to win. I hope it’s going to be a close tie and that we get a chance to be in a position to win. But it’s going to be tough battle.”

There was nothing very complicated – certainly not in Haarhuis’ mind – about the choice of red clay as the surface for the tie. “The idea for putting in the clay court is that basically all the players from our team like the clay courts and basically all the players from Canada prefer hard courts,” he said. “We have to put in a court because it’s not like there was a court there already. I always talk to the players and they have a say in it. And everybody says clay.”

There’s a basketball floor underneath the red clay in the Maaspoort arena. Haarhuis had a final quip, saying, “on that (basketball) surface the Canadian team would win for sure. They’re the taller team.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

That’s Canadian team height leader 6-foot Marino practising in the picture here.

Heidi El Tabakh, the new Canadian Fed Cup captain after more than 10 years on the pro tour and a career-high singles ranking of No. 146 in 2012, was less coy than Haarhuis about her players – conceding that Andreescu would be No. 1. “You never know but that’s the plan,” she said in response to a question from a Dutch reporter.

Andreescu and Abanda practiced together on Wednesday (see picture at top) and they would appear to be the most likely singles combination for the Canadians.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

As for the opposition’s singles players, El Tabakh (above with team coach Nathalie Tauziat) said, “I’m assuming it’s their No. 1 (Rus) and No. 2 (Hogenkamp) but we won’t know til the draw’s out.”

El Tabakh proved to have a pretty good riposte when a Dutch reporter suggested that her opposite number, Haarhuis, had a sizeable experience advantage over her when it came to being a Fed Cup captain. She replied, “he didn’t get to play against his players – and I did. He’s a great captain and I’m up for the challenge. That’s what I signed up for.”

Asked which Dutch players she had faced during her playing days, El Tabakh said, “I’m pretty sure I played against Hogenkamp and I’ve practiced a lot with Rus in the past.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

The match-up – at 1 p.m. on Saturday (7 a.m. ET in Canada) and noon (6 a.m. ET in Canada) on Sunday is noteworthy for the absence of the biggest names in both countries. Bertens is concentrating on solidifying her singles spot in the WTA top-10. As for Bouchard, El Tabakh said by way of explaining her not being in Den Bosch, “I think maybe for right now she’s going to focus on her singles ranking. But I’m confident in the near future she’s going to be representing Canada for Fed Cup. She’s been a great team player and a pillar for us in the past and I think she will continue to do so.”

As for her initial feelings about her new position as captain, El Tabakh said, “it’s a big responsibility – definitely a new experience for me and it’s a big challenge. It’s actually made me a much more organized person. I have to plan for things ahead of time. I’ve got to communicate with all the girls, with the coaches and staff. It’s a great experience for me.”

The assessment on the indoor clay court is that it is not nearly as slow as an outdoor clay court, which would have normal drainage that would make it soften up. “I think it’s pretty fast,” El Tabakh said, “and moving can be a little bit challenging on it. But there’s a couple of more days to adjust. It’s beautiful court and a cozy stadium so I have a feeling it’s going to be super-loud in there.”

And super-orange too – the Dutch national colour.

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Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz