The Canadian Fed Cup team is down 0-2 after the first day of play in its World Group II relegation tie against Slovakia in Bratislava after a day of almosts, not quites and opportunities missed.
For Canadian No. 1 Françoise Abanda, currently ranked No. 260 on the WTA Tour, the task was more of a challenge as she faced former top-10 and Australian Open and Rogers Cup finalist Dominika Cibulkova.
Working her way back from injury, the 26-year-old Slovak finds herself ranked lower than younger teammate Anna Schmiedlova. But she is by far the best, most experienced player in the tie for either team and after a sluggish start, showed her competitive mettle and experience in a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 win. Cibulkova hadn't played a match on clay since the 2014 French Open; she missed the entire clay-court campaign a year ago (and much more) with a left Achilles injury.
“I played a great first set, but Dominika is a very good player and she was able to raise her level of play and come away with the win. I didn’t feel 100% per cent physically, so that didn’t help. I was sick last week so my preparation wasn’t ideal, but I fought as hard as I could for my country," was the official press-release quote from Abanda.
The two had played in Montreal two years ago at the Rogers Cup, where a 17-year-old Abanda had taken Cibulkova to three sets before succumbing. The Montrealer’s career, one of unfulfilled promise so far despite her still-tender age, has been marked by impressive performances on big occasions.
And in the first set, she flat-out took it to Cibulkova, who began a little sleepily.
Once Cibulkova took over, dictating the points and putting Abanda on her heels, it was an uphill battle.
The main difference between a top-10 player and a player like Abanda was starkly evident; talent level is only one element. Abanda had flashes of tremendous groundstroking; her opponent simply brought the legs, intensity and effort to every single point. Point after point. No matter how difficult it got. It was an on-court lesson in that sense for the young Canadian, who really is lacking only that consistent desire and intensity to become a viable WTA Tour level player.
The second rubber was even more excruciating as veteran Aleksandra Wozniak took on 22-year-old Schmiedlova, ranked No. 34 but a player who hasn’t won a match on the WTA Tour since … early January.
Wozniak won a lot of matches at the minor-league ITF level earlier this season, but missed the last month because of bursitis in her foot.
It might have simply been nerves, or the pressure of knowing that despite her No. 2 status the tie was very much on her 28-year-old shoulders. Perhaps, on some level, it was sinking in that this might be the last time the proud Fed Cup competitor (a Canadian record 40 career wins) plays with her country’s name on her back. Whatever it was. she was tense.
Wozniak continues to struggle with confidence on her serve, even though the shoulder she had surgery on in Sept. 2014 has not given her physical problems this year. Averaging 82 mph on that first delivery is going to make holding serve a challenge.
But in the end, she came out on the short end of a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 defeat mostly because she only really put her foot on the gas when she was behind. That was particularly evident at the end of the second set, when she simply went for it, took on Schmiedlova’s weak second serve and pounced.
In the third, originally up 40-love, Wozniak was broken in the third game. She fought back once to break and tie the set at 4-4, but reverted back to her passive moonball tactics to cough up the break once more before Schmiedlova served it out.
There were 15 breaks of serve in this one; Schmiedlova went 8-for-12 with her opportunities, Wozniak a woeful 7-for-25. So she can’t say she didn’t have plenty of chances.
The Canadian women are a mostly-forgotten team in Slovakia this weekend. The Tennis Canada top brass, who hastened to make the trip to balmy Guadeloupe last month for a Milos Raonic-less Davis Cup team, were nowhere to be seen in Bratislava Saturday. Sportsnet, which holds the English-language rights for Fed Cup and Davis Cup (and the Rogers Cup), sent reporter Arash Madani to Guadeloupe even as it did the play-by-play from a Toronto studio.
For this tie, it is not even doing that although, to put it in context, it's a busy sports weekend with NHL playoffs, the Raptors and the Blue Jays live on its schedule. But with all the extra channels, and the Fed Cup starting at 6 a.m. EDT, there was room.
Still, not only did Sportsnet not even broadcast the tie on television (it was streamed on the network's website), it put on-court interviewer Arash Madani in the unfamiliar position of calling the match, with the promising but inexperienced former Canadian player Stéphanie Dubois doing the colour commentary.
With Eugenie Bouchard originally scheduled to play the tie, it wasn't even a matter of her absence; cost cuts rearing their ugly heads, to the detriment of the Canadian women who wouldn't have been human if they didn't notice.
Despite the closeness of the matches, Canada still finds itself down 0-2 in the tie although all is not completely lost.
“It was a difficult day with two close matches that unfortunately did not go our way. I am proud of Françoise and Aleksandra. They gave everything they had and showed a lot of courage, but I have to give a lot of credit to the Slovaks who were both very solid especially in the important moments," said Canadian captain Sylvain Bruneau, again per the press release.
Abanda played well enough against Cibulkova that you have to think she has a shot against Schmiedlova, first up on Sunday. The young Slovak will have the pressure of closing out the victory for her country.
If Abanda can prevail, Wozniak would play Cibulkova and hopefully throw all caution to the wind in the effort, because she can’t win without it.
If the Canadians can’t pull off the improbable comeback, they will be relegated to the American zonal competition for 2017.