When a team’s two most experienced and decorated players are unable to play singles in Fed Cup, it knows it’s in trouble.
That was the situation Canada found itself in after Genie Bouchard withdrew from her singles against No. 1 Swiss player Belinda Bencic in Canada’s Qualifiers tie against Switzerland in Biel on Friday.
Bouchard hurt her wrist in the last five minutes of her practice on Thursday and after trying Friday morning it was decided she wouldn’t be able to play the No. 5-ranked Bencic.
The Bouchard withdrawal followed Canadian No. 1 Bianca Andreescu having to pull out of the singles before Thursday’s draw ceremony, making Fernandez the No. 1. Gabriela Dabrowski, a star doubles player, replaced Bouchard and immediately became a long-shot to win, amping up the pressure on Fernandez in the opening match against Swiss No. 2 Jil Teichmann (below and on left at top).
Fernandez, just 17, played a solid match against the No. 68-ranked Teichmann but the 22-year-old Swiss was just a little better in the critical moments and came away with a 7-6(4), 6-4 victory. In the second match, Dabrowski gave an honest effort in a 6-1, 6-2 loss but was in no position to seriously challenge a singles player as accomplished as Bencic – the 2015 Rogers Cup champion in Toronto with semi-final and final wins over No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 3 Simona Halep.
Teichmann started Friday’s match on an amazing run of 10 points in a row with scintillating shot-making. But Fernandez showed her mental grit by holding serve from love-30 in the third game, making the statement that she wasn’t about to fade away.
She eventually broke serve to level the set at 5-all and held to lead 6-5 as part of a remarkable streak of 12 points in a row.
Teichmann held to 6-all and in the ensuing tiebreak the players were even at 4-all when the Swiss won a thrilling, up-tempo rally with a big forehand winner and then clinched the set on a Fernandez unforced error and a winner overhead smash.
The set had lasted 48 minutes and there was a sense that Teichmann would have been more under the gun than the tenacious Fernandez had she lost it.
In the second set, the players twice traded breaks until it reached 4-all. Then Teichmann held serve to 5-4 and closed out the match in the 10th game, rallying from a 30-love deficit for the break. She was helped by a badly missed Fernandez overhead into the net at 30-15 and then by a backhand volley miss into the net on Teichmann’s first match point.
Fernandez acquitted herself well playing against a top-75 player for only the third time in her career – the first was when she was defeated 6-4, 6-1 by No. 47 Marketa Vondrousova in Fed Cup in the Czech Republic last April and the second was a 6-4, 6-2 loss to No. 62 Lauren Davis in the first round of the 2020 Australian Open.
She has power off both sides from the back of the court, knows how to crack a good inside/out forehand and how to acute angle a cross-court backhand. But she is still 17, and won’t be 18 until September, and was playing a player in Teichmann who already has won two WTA titles – including beating world No. 5 Kiki Bertens in the Palermo final last July.
“I actually really like her game and her attitude,” Teichmann said later about Fernandez. “She’s really, really young – only 17 – and she’s already showing her shots and that she’s not afraid to be out there. I think she’ll be very, very good.”
Fernandez is hyper pumped every time she plays and afterward summed up, “I hit some great shots but I just missed a few important ones and it cost me the match.”
Would she take the outcome of one-hour and 31-minute contest hard or view it was a learning experience? “I take it very hard,” she responded without hesitation. “It’s never easy to lose but of course everyone wants to win. I wanted to win. It’s a learning experience for me too to see how my game is against a top-hundred player. It’s getting better and better and now I just need to fix those little mistakes.”
As for captain Heidi El Tabakh, she noted, “Leylah did a really good job of staying in the first set. I feel at some points she could have been a little bit more aggressive – or to go for it. It’s tough, she’s very young and still not used to playing against top players. He fought out there and that’s all I can ask for.”
“The top-100 level is a lot different that a top-250 player,” Fernandez said. “A top-100 player will make fewer errors and make you play a little more. It was a good experience to play against Jil, she’s a really good player. I know what I need to do for the next time.”
In the second match, Dabrowski held serve to 1-all in the opening set before dropping seven games in a row to trail 2-0 in the second set. The match then got more competitive with Dabrowski making a stand in the final game by saving three match points before going down on a Bencic forehand winner to end the 56-minute encounter.
“I know her from the tour so it was not someone I didn’t know at all,” Bencic said about her reaction to Dabrowski substituting for Bouchard. “I definitely focused on my game and it didn’t change much for me.”
“I was excited to play,” Dabrowski said, “but I’ve played two singles matches this year and in my pre-season I played one baseline game of points and that was my singles prep for today. Unfortunately I couldn’t give more than that.”
Since 2014, there have been other instances of the top two Canadian international team players withdrawing and requiring substitutions. In 2014, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil were injured and Canada lost 3-1 in a World Group tie in Tokyo. A year later in Ostend, Belgium, Raonic and Pospisil were again unavailable and Canada was beaten 3-0 in Ostend, Belgium.
Something similar happened in Fed Cup in April, 2018, in Montreal when Francoise Abanda fell pre-match and couldn’t play singles and then Bianca Andreescu suffered from body cramps. That forced Dabrowski to play the reverse singles and she lost in three sets to Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine. But thanks to a pair of singles wins by Bouchard and then Dabrowski combining with Andreescu to take the decisive fifth match, Canada pulled through 3-2.
“It was a different opponent,” Dabrowski said recalling her lower-ranked opponent in Montreal two years ago. “Belinda has had an amazing end of last year, qualifying for Shenzhen (WTA Finals),” Dabrowski said. “I watched her play some matches – Adelaide and Melbourne – and she was quite strong.”
“I just tried to hold my serve,” Dabrowski added about her approach to playing Bencic. “I know that she has a good serve and there are days when it can be off but when it’s on it’s hard to read. I found it really hard to read today. I couldn’t quite get a feel for it. And then on my service games I’m not really used to the positioning and shot selection for singles. So I felt a little bit like even if I had a ball that’s normally attackable I still felt like I was behind in the rally from pure lack of practice I guess.”
The host Swiss now head into Saturday’s two singles and the doubles just a single victory away from qualifying for the Fed Cup Finals in April. Ever eager, Fernandez said about now facing Bencic, “to be able to play someone in the top-10 is unbelievable. I’ve seen her play on television for a long time and I’m anxious to play against her and see how it goes.”
As for the second match, especially if the tie isn’t decided, it is up in the air. Bouchard had a scan on her left wrist Saturday and if it came up negative there’s a chance she could be fit for the No. 2 vs. No. 2 singles. “We’ll see, it’s possible,” said El Tabakh. “We’re taking it day by day – that’s been the theme of the week.”
Despite her loss, Dabrowski deserves credit for being a true team player. While most players involved in the second match in international team competitions usually stay away from the court during the first match, Dabrowski was there involved and encouraging Fernandez. Asked about that, she said, “I wanted to watch. I wanted to support. Obviously were at an away tie, so every man cheering counts.”
She was front row between Andreescu and coach Nathalie Tauziat. “She actually gave me a really good tip when I looked back at her,” captain El Tabakh said about Dabrowski. “Every once in a while I’ll look at Nathalie and I just saw her (Dabrowski) and she said something that was very useful.”
El Tabakh would not divulge the tactical advice, but it then gave Dabrowski a chance to chime in with a little self-deprecating humour, “I did something right today.”
Biel is home to three major watch companies – Rolex, Swatch and Omega – with Tissot and Rado located not far away. While Swiss timing has been out of whack for the Canadian team with the untimely injuries, it has been efficient and getting matches underway at the announced start time. For Saturday’s second day that would be at 1 p.m. (7 a.m. ET in Canada).
These beautiful creatures could be found on the Aare River beside the hotel in Solothurn, near Biel, where many Fed Cup tournament officials were staying.