It was a tall order even under ideal circumstances.
But when Canadian Fed Cup stalwart Aleksandra Wozniak walked out on court Saturday afternoon with her surgically-repaired shoulder taped up and her right calf heavily wrapped, it was basically over.
Françoise Abanda had just given Canada hope with an impressive 7-5, 6-2 win over Jana Cepelova, a late substitute for Anna Schmiedlova. But Wozniak needed to defeat Slovakia’s best player, Dominika Cibulkova, and even at her freshest and best that was going to be difficult.
The 28-year-old from Blainville, Que. went down 6-2, 6-0 just a few ticks past the one-hour mark and with that, the Canadians lost the World Group II playoff tie and now are relegated to the Fed Cup zonal competition for 2017.
Saturday’s two-hour, 47-minute loss to Anna Schmiedlova was Wozniak’s first match on clay since the 2014 French Open, and her first encounter with a top-50 player since shortly after that. It was gruelling and, with the added Fed Cup tension, Wozniak suffered cramps after the defeat. It may have been the first time in her career she dealt with that, and the effects were visible on Sunday.
The Canadian won just one of 13 points on her second serve, a woeful number even if the average velocity on her serve was actually higher than it was on Saturday. She won just 28 points in all, and gave away exactly the same number on unforced errors.
Cibulkova won 58 points, and made just 15 errors. It was comprehensive, almost sad. Captain Sylvain Bruneau was putting ice on Wozniak’s barking calf on changeovers and there was never any sense that it was going to turn around, especially with Cibulkova’s experience.
“Our players gave everything they had. Françoise played a very good match which could be a positive for her future. It was more difficult for Aleksandra. We thought she would be able to recover after her long battle yesterday, but from the start of the match she felt like she couldn’t move very well, Bruneau said, per Tennis Canada’s press release. “But you have to hand it to Dominika Cibulkova and the way she played. She was engaged from the get-go and didn’t give anything away.
It’s too bad Wozniak was unable to capitalize on the momentum generated by younger teammate Abanda, who completely shut down the raucous Slovak crowd as she survived a tough first set to run away with the opening match of the day.
Currently ranked No. 124, Cepelova has some good clay-court credentials, including a final at the WTA Tour event in Charleston, S.C. a few years ago. She began the match well and it seemed a good choice, as her greater variety should have been effective in getting Abanda to move and disrupting her rhythm.
But it didn’t work out that way.
Inexplicably, the Slovak got into a hitting contest with the 19-year-old from Montreal and on this day, Abanda was firing winners left and right and gaining confidence as she did.
The second-set numbers were ugly on both sides: one winner and 19 unforced errors for Cepelova, nine winners and 21 errors for Abanda. And yet, it wasn’t even that close.
“I was a bit surprised that the Slovak team chose Jana Cepelova for today’s match. I think the fact that I played a strong match yesterday against Cibulkova helped me for today. I played very aggressive tennis through the whole match, which is my style of play,” Abanda said, per the press release. “I was efficient and served well. Cepelova is a very good player and I was expecting her to get a lot of balls back, but I stayed alert.”
The two squads decided to play the doubles match despite the outcome of the tie already having been decided.
It was a good opportunity for the up-and-coming 17-year-olds on both squads – Charlotte Robillard-Millette for Canada and Tereza Mihalikova for Slovakia – to make their Fed Cup debuts, even in a dead rubber.
Robillard-Millette paired with Sharon Fichman to defeat Mihalikova and Cepelova 6-3, 0-6, 10-8 in the match tiebreak.
It made the final score 3-2, even though the tie was not really that close.
Next year, the Canadians will be in the abyss of the zonal competition. Since 2003, the eight-team, week-long event has been held in Canada just once, in 2009.
It is played in Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Mexico … well, you get the idea. A week-long slog on the red clay against players who typically are much lower-ranked. But that doesn’t make it any easier to get through. One slip and it can be over for the year.
So the next date for the Canadian Fed Cup team will be the week of Feb. 6, 2017.
The two weeks immediately after that feature the two big WTA tournaments in Doha and Dubai – in the Middle East, on hard courts.
Assuming top Canadian Genie Bouchard’s ranking puts her into both those events next season, it would be an impressive feat to get her to South America for a week on the dirt after beginning the year on the hard courts before and after the Australian Open.