What were the chances Leylah Annie Fernandez and Rebecca Marino would not be the singles players in this weekend’s Billie Jean King Cup match-up against Latvia in Vancouver? Barring injuries, the answer is less than slim to none.
First off, they are the highest ranked Canadian players on their team at No. 21 and No. 111 respectively. Second, it would be hard to imagine 2021 US Open runner-up Fernandez travelling all the way from her home base in Florida to sit on the bench for the Qualifiers tie at the Pacific Coliseum. Third, how could Marino not get an opportunity to showcase her revitalized tennis game in front of a hometown crowd?
If the Canadian players for the Friday/Saturday best-of-five match tie were never in doubt, that was far from the situation with Latvia, especially after team captain Adrians Zguns (above) revealed on Tuesday that his best player and the current world No. 11, 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, would not be playing. The 24-year-old from Riga won the WTA 500 event in Dubai in February and was a semi-finalist the following week at the WTA 1000 in Doha on the best run of her career since that memorable triumph in Paris two days before her 20th birthday on June 8, five years ago.
A ridiculously powerful, but incredibly unpredictable player, Ostapenko would likely have been the pendulum-swinger, one way or the other, had she made the trip to Vancouver.
Zguns said she spoke to him after losing to Shelby Rogers at the Miami Open on March 25 and has a wrist issue at the moment. Speculation that she might be purposely avoiding the tie was dashed Thursday when it was learned she has withdrawn from next week’s WTA 500 event in Stuttgart, a tournament viewed as the start of the European clay-court season for the WTA’s top players.
(Bianca Andreescu has taken a wild card into Stuttgart and will be playing for the first time since Indian Wells last October.)
Also absent in Vancouver is Latvia’s No. 2 player Anastasija Sevastova, who has a singles record of 19-6 over eight years and 23 ties in Billie Jean King Cup competition. The 31-year-old, currently ranked No. 119 after being as high as No. 11 in 2018, began an indefinite break from tennis after this year’s Australian Open.
With Ostapenko out, the Canadian team captained by Heidi El Tabakh had to recalibrate against a Latvian squad featuring potential singles players No. 267 Daniela Vismane, 21, No. 281 Diana Marcinkevica, 29, and a 19-year-old Darja Semenistaja, ranked No. 398.
The biggest question mark is the 19-year-old Semenistaja who is making her Billie Jean King Cup debut. As a point of reference, she won an International Tennis Federation (ITF) $25,000 (US) event in Cancun, Mexico in February after getting through eight matches – three rounds of qualifying and five rounds in the main draw. That included a first-round 6-4, 7-5 victory over Canadian BJK Cup team member Carol Zhao, now ranked No. 285.
But in Semenistaja’s subsequent three events (all also on hard courts) – a second in Cancun and two more in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – she won just one match, and her current No. 398 ranking is a career high.
As a result of Thursday’s draw, Semenistaja will face Fernandez in the first singles on Friday beginning at 4 p.m. PT (7 p.m. ET).
Fernandez has an 8-5 record in 2022, including defending her Monterrey, Mexico WTA 250 title early last month. She is 3-2 in singles over her BJK Cup career, which dates back to her debut in the Czech Republic as a 16-year-old in 2019.
Her highlight so far has been a victory over then-world No. 5 Belinda Bencic in Biel, Switzerland, in (pre-pandemic) February, 2020.
Captain El Tabakh, in her seventh tie as captain but her first with the team at home, has no concerns about the 19-year-old Fernandez despite her recent opening-round losses to Karolina Muchova in Miami and Magda Linette in Charleston. “Everyone is out to get her right now, she’s the one that everyone is looking forward to play,” El Tabakh said. “She’s super young and has so much room for improvement. I’m definitely not worried about her. No one wants to play Leylah because she’s a fighter and she won’t give you anything for free. So I have full confidence in her.”
“She was always much better,” Semenistaja said about her fellow 19-year-old Fernandez. “I played the same junior Grand Slams as she did. I could have played her in the second round of the French Open a few years ago (2019 when Fernandez won the title) but I didn’t (losing in the first round). So it will be the first time I’m actually playing her.”
A personable teenager, Semenistaja seems thrilled to be on her BJK Cup team for the first time and said, “I’ll just enjoy it as much as I can.”
The second match Friday features local favourite Marino, although the 31-year-old was actually born in Toronto, against Vismane. The 2022 season has been productive for Marino. Her record, including ITF events and main tour qualifying, is 21-6 and she qualified for both the Australian and Miami Opens, won an ITF $60,000 event in Arcadia, California, and was runner at a $60,000 ITF tournament in Irapuato, Mexico, as well as a $25,000 ITF in Cancun, Mexico.
In 2022, Vismane is 8-8 at ITF and WTA (Bogota first-round qualifying) events on hard and clay courts in France, Germany, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia.
Now No. 1 on her team but used to usually being either No. 3 or No. 4, Vismane gave a candid assessment of the match-up with Canada saying, “we all know who are favourites and who are not in this team competition this weekend. But we are all ready to fight and give our best, and we’re super-excited for the upcoming weekend.”
None of the players in Friday or Saturday’s singles have previously played each other.
Marino’s ranking has improved from No. 144 to No. 111 in 2022 – putting her seven spots out of direct entry to the French Open, which begins on Sunday, May 22.
The Canada – Latvia tie is a big deal for her playing at home and she has about 50 tickets for friends and family for the Pacific Coliseum with its capacity of 8,000 for tennis. “This is such a historic place in Vancouver itself,” she said about the Coliseum after Thursday’s draw ceremony. “It’s the original home of the (NHL) Canucks and I know they used to host a tournament here where Arthur Ashe played at one point. And I’ve come and watched the Superdogs (a show featuring performing dogs)…(smiles) that’s history in and of itself. It’s honestly just incredible to be playing here, to be home, especially after everything that’s happened through the pandemic. It’s like the re-start of tennis locally and to bring our community together for something exciting is really fantastic.”
Slated for the doubles, which would be played after the reverse singles on Saturday, are Gabriela Dabrowski, playing in her 18th BJK Cup tie, and Zhao for Canada and Marcinkevica and 38-year-old Liga Dekmeijeve for Latvia.
Also on the Canadian team is 25-year-old Francoise Abanda.
In terms of the playing conditions, Fernandez said, “we all love the court – it’s indoor tennis, it’s hard court and it suits our games really well.”
The BJK Cup Qualifier will be available on the Sportsnet Now streaming service and TVA Sports at 7 p.m. (ET) on Friday and 5 p.m. (ET) on Saturday.
The prize for the winner this weekend is a spot in the Billie Jean King Cup Finals from November 8-13 at a site yet to be determined.
Feature Photo: Pascal Ratthé