The heavily-favoured Canadians followed the script for the opening day of the Canada vs. Latvia match-up in the Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier in Vancouver on Friday – right up until the late stages of the second match between Rebecca Marino and Daniela Vismane.
Leylah Annie Fernandez, as expected, made quick 6-1, 6-2 work of Darja Semenistaja and Marino then appeared on her way to finishing in straight sets against Vismane when the gutsy Latvian forced a deciding set.
Marino had break points at 4-all and 5-all in the second set and then started the eventual tiebreak 3-0 before Vismane ran off seven of the following eight points to take it 7-4.
The 21-year-old played tenacious, scrappy tennis to frustrate the bigger hitting 6-foot tall Marino whose heavy, flat ground strokes at times appeared almost able to bowl over the smaller Latvian.
There were nerves aplenty in the early stages of the final set as Vismane fought of a break point in the fourth game after Marino had saved two in the previous game. She was doing an impressive job of chasing down shots, extending rallies and challenging Marino’s big hitting game.
“I’ve watched some of her matches at other events,” Marino would say later about Vismane, “and I know she likes to move and run a lot and those are the sort of players that I struggle with. The underdog is never to be underestimated and that’s kind of a little bit what happened today.”
As tenacious and consistent as Vismane had been – she gave Marino an opening trailing 2-3 in the sixth game. Serving at 15-love, Vismane wavered, making backhand and then forehand errors to fall behind 15-30. Marino didn’t waste the chance – getting to 15-40 with a crushing overhead smash winner and then taking the game and getting the break with a bold, backhand down-the-line strike for a winner.
That made it 4-2 and she then held to 5-2. Two games later she served out the match to love – finishing with her 16th and 17th aces.
Twice earlier in the match she had hit three aces in a row and also recorded a mighty 124 mph blast as her fastest serve of the day.
Key to the Marino win was her ability to put behind what probably could fairly be categorized a collapse in the second-set tiebreak.
“She was telling me just to reset, to trust myself and almost pretend that it was a practice match,” Marino said about her courtside talk with captain Heidi El Tabakh after the second set. “That was the sort of stuff she was telling me to do and I found that really helpful to find my stride. I was really grateful to have her calming me down and getting me through to the third set.”
As for Vismane, she said about her ability to turn things around mid-match, “in the second set she (Marino) went a bit down and I also found the key to step back a bit more to take the balls on her first serve. And I tried to change the rhythm as much as I could.”
The final scoreline was 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-3.
While the No. 21-ranked Fernandez is easily the standout player in the tie, Marino is the centre of attraction playing at home and with her attachment to her hometown of Vancouver. And also with the memory of her father Joe who died of cancer exactly two years ago on Friday’s date – April 15th.
“I think I can say that this was particularly special and that it’s going to be something I’m never going to forget,” she said. “So I’m very grateful that Tennis Canada selected Vancouver as the host city for this tie. I feel very happy, very proud. We had a great crowd out today – Vancouver really came out and filled the stadium.”
Along with the second set tiebreak, Marino’s only other obvious sketchy moment came in the very first game of the match, which she lost to 15 including serving a double fault.
Asked if she was afraid of being overwhelmed by the occasion, she said, “that was something I was aware of – so that’s why I didn’t want to stay too long and watch a lot of Leylah’s match, as much as I wanted to be courtside. It could be a little overwhelming knowing how many people are out there, the feeling of the stadium, and the crowd noise. Unfortunately, I was a little slow in that first game but I feel like it allowed me to settle in. I really did find my rhythm as the match continued. So that was a really good feeling. I feel like it’s going to be to my benefit going in tomorrow knowing that I can fight through if I’m not feeling particularly my best at the start.
“The nerves were because it meant a lot to me to have all my closest friends, all my family (including mother Catherine and brother Steven) there in the stands. I can really see them – see their faces. I wanted to do well for them and I was excited. I’m really proud of today’s performance.”
Fernandez had her game face on from the moment she arrived on the court before the official opening ceremonies.
As the world No. 21 and 2021 US Open finalist, she had little to gain against a fellow teenager (both aged 19) Semenistaja who ranks No. 389.
Even though she won the first five points of the match with Semenistaja seeming in danger of being completely outplayed, there was a moment early on when the Latvian threatened to possibly make things competitive. Down 0-2, she broke Fernandez for 1-2 and led 30-15 on her way to making it 2-all. But Fernandez ran off three points in a row, capping the run with a forehand swing volley winner.
Things quickly escalated for Semenistaja and soon Fernandez had wrapped up the first set 6-1 in 23 minutes.
It was more of the same in the second set – although there were moments when Semenistaja was able to win a few rallies and showed that she had enough pop on her ground strokes to be a threat.
But in the end she was unable to hold serve even once – Fernandez converting seven of her nine break-point opportunities.
It was a comprehensive victory and that game face entering the court didn’t really loosen to a smile until Semenistaja’s backhand service return went long on the first match point to end the 53-minute encounter.
Talking later about how she wanted to take control from the very start against Semenistaja, who was making her BJK Cup debut, Fernandez said, “I remember the first time I played my first Billie Jean King Cup match (as a 16-year-old in Prostejov, Czech Republic, in 2019). I was very nervous and I missed some easy shots. I just wanted to be aggressive and put the pressure on her – to play my game as quickly as possible.”
It didn’t take long and she finished with 16 winners to five for Semenistaja.
She also admitted there were some nerves involved with that pre-match game-face. “I’m always nervous at the beginning of matches. It’s normal. It just means we love the moment and we just want to play well.”
On Saturday, Canada, ahead 2-0, will go for the win in the best-of-five match tie when Fernandez takes on the No. 267-ranked Vismane to be followed, if necessary, by Marino versus Semenistaja and then possibly a doubles with Gabriela Dabrowski and Carol Zhao playing Diana Marcinkevica and Liga Dekmeijere.
The matches start at 2 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET) and are available in French on TVA2 and in English for free (live stream) on Sportsnet Now.
“Obviously we got what we wanted today – the win 2-0,” summed up captain El Tabakh. “I feel that first day, playing as favourite in a home tie is not easy. I think both girls felt a lot of pressure, especially Rebecca. But I’m proud of the way she handled it – her and Leylah. I think tomorrow (Saturday) we’re going to come out a little more confident and hopefully play a little looser. Now with two matches against those (Latvian) girls, we’ll be more prepared tomorrow.”
Feature Photo: Joe Ng