It’s hard to imagine a more powerful display of the future of women’s tennis in Canada than the one put on by Francoise Abanda and Bianca Andreescu in the home team’s Fed Cup victory over Kazakhstan in Montreal this weekend.
Not only did Abanda, 20, and Andreescu, 16, win three of their four matches but they consistently out-hit and out-played Yulia Putintseva, ranked No. 31, and Yaroslava Shvedova, No. 51, on the indoor hard court at STADE IGA.
In many ways it wasn’t a surprise with Andreescu who has announced her arrival as a big-time player this year with wins at two $25,000 ITF tournaments in California and Italy – being pushed to three sets just once in 10 matches. But Abanda, a modest 3-7 at WTA and ITF events so far in 2017, was more of a surprise and flat-out smoking in beating both Shvedova (6-3, 6-4) and Putintseva (6-3, 6-3).
In the latter opening match on Sunday, she fell behind 3-1 in the opening set and then completely frustrated the volatile Putintseva with play that was in the proverbial “zone.” She finished with 21 winners but there were a lot more big shots that Putintseva couldn’t handle and that fell into the category of ‘forced errors.’
“She was flawless, yesterday and today,” said captain Sylvain Bruneau on Sunday about Abanda, “she played her best tennis. She was hitting the ball so clean and moved so well and was seeing the play so well. She played some gutsy tennis. This girl (Putintseva) is tough, she gets every single ball back and Francoise kept going at it, getting inside the court and taking it to her. And you know Putintseva isn’t going to give you an inch.”
As for Andreescu, who played well enough to win on Saturday in a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 loss to Putintseva, she showed not only her hard, flat ground strokes from the baseline but a mature-beyond-her-years temperament as she rallied from rocky starts – 2-0 down in both sets – to overcome Shvedova 7-6(1), 6-4.
Her clean ball-striking is a marvel to behold and former world No. 77 Sharon Fichman, doing commentary on the weekend for Sportsnet, said about her forehand, “it’s like a guy’s forehand. It’s very relaxed. You don’t see that very often on the women’s tour (but) she has the ability to do that.”
Andreescu hit 26 winners to go with 25 unforced errors in an impressive show in her first home Fed Cup tie. She won 83 per cent of first serve points and 59 per cent of second serve points. Shvedova was 67 per cent on first serve but most notably just 33 per cent on second-serve points, testimony to how effective Andreescu was returning second serves.
“Just in itself for a 16-year-old to go out there and beat someone like Shvedova on a fast indoor court,” said Bruneau, “is a really great accomplishment. And she did it in Fed Cup with the pressure to clinch the tie for your country – everybody is watching, everybody wants you to do well. It’s good energy but at the same time it’s nerve-wracking and I think she really handled herself like a champion. I’m really proud of her.”
Andreescu, nearly 5-foot-6, is a fine athlete and gritty competitor. It was amusing to be at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March and listen to all the talk about promising 17-year-old American Kayla Day who upset world No. 30 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 in the second round. Just a few weeks earlier the 16-year-old Andreescu had beaten Day 6-4, 6-1 in the final of the ITF $25,000 event in Santa Fe, California.
There were some statistical oddities related to the results of the weekend in Montreal that don’t diminish the exploits of Abanda and Andreescu but are worth noting. Shvedova was only 1-6 so far this year entering the tie and Putintseva, remarkably for a world No. 31, is now 14-13 versus players ranked in the Top 100 since last year’s US Open but a feeble 1-5 against players ranked No. 101 and lower. That now includes Abanda who is No. 186, two spots above Andreescu at No. 188.
Summing up the weekend and the 3-1 win over Kazakhstan and its superior ranked players, Bruneau said, “it’s a huge victory for us, Kazakhstan is a tough team. We have a very young team, girls who don’t have as much experience but they played really hard for their country. They played their best tennis this weekend and that’s awesome.”
There was the added cachet of the World Group II play-off being in Montreal. “It’s as good as it gets,” Bruneau beamed, “to do this at home here at the National Tennis Centre in front of your people, with everybody watching from Tennis Canada and on TV and everywhere. I know for the girls it was important. It’s good in Mexico (where Canada won a Fed Cup zonal competition in February) but it goes a little bit unnoticed. But here you’ve got everybody cheering for you – it’s great energy.”
Sunday finished with Kazakhs Kamila Kerimbayeva and Galina Voskoboeva defeating Gabriela Dabrowski and Katherine Sebov 6-7(6), 7-6(6), [10-5] in the doubles to make the final official count 3-2 for host nation.
What’s next for Abanda and Andreescu?
The big challenge for Abanda, who many may have forgotten was a semifinalist at just 15 in the junior girls singles event at Wimbledon in 2012 when 18-year-old Genie Bouchard was the champion, will be to build on her superb form. Fichman, during the television broadcast before Abanda’s match was referring to the Montrealer’s and other young players’ sometimes negative temperament when she spoke pre-match about using “your brain to problem solve and not to freak out about things you can’t control.”
Captain Bruneau, referencing Abanda’s inability in the past to use success in Fed Cup and at Rogers Cup in Montreal and carry it over to the women’s tour, said, “I’m hoping she’s going to take this and do this all year because she can be so high in the rankings.”
As for Andreescu, like Abanda, her ranking will get her into the French Open qualifying which begins four weeks from Monday – on May 22.
She has been through a lot recently including Fed Cup and two ITF events in Italy, so she can probably use some rest, especially because she missed almost six months at this time last year with a stress fracture in her foot and was bothered by a left thigh issue earlier this year.
Neither Abanda or Andreescu will be playing any more Fed Cup matches in 2017 after leading Canada to victory in this weekend’s World Group II play-offs.
But there could well be a very nice bonus next year. The International Tennis Federation has meetings in August in Vietnam when it will consider changing the current eight-nation World Group I to a 16-country competition like the present set-up with Davis Cup.
The big thing about that would be that Canada, unlike under the current format where it would be playing in World Group II next year for the opportunity to move up to World Group I in 2019, it could be competing with 15 other countries for the actual Fed Cup in 2018. It might possibly be perfect timing after the Canadian team’s success in what was a nearly perfect weekend in Montreal.
BOUCHARD IN ISTANBUL
Genie Bouchard will attempt to end a streak of five straight losses on the WTA tour when she plays No. 99-ranked Jana Cepelova in the first round of the WTA International Series event in Istanbul this week.
Bouchard won her only previous meeting with the 23-year-old Slovak 7-6(6), 6-3 during a 2014 Canada – Slovakia Fed Cup tie in Quebec City.
Cepelova will be travelling to Istanbul after playing a Fed Cup World Group play-off tie against the Netherlands (1-1 in singles) at home on indoor clay in Bratislava over the weekend.
Should the No. 58-ranked Bouchard make it through Cepelova, she would face either No. 82 Sara Torribes Tormo of Spain, who beat her 7-6(8), 6-3 earlier this month in Monterrey, Mexico, or No. 161-ranked Turkish wild card Ipek Soylu.
The top seed in the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup outdoor clay event is No. 13-ranked Elina Svitolina, who will be travelling to Istanbul after playing Fed Cup in Stuttgart, Germany, where she lost to No. 46 Julia Goerges but defeated world No. 1 Angelique Kerber. Bouchard could play the 22-year-old Ukrainian in the semifinals.