Fernandez tops Vismane, Canada sweeps Latvia to make Billie Jean King Cup finals

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VANCOUVER — A big win on home soil will be an enduring memory for Canadian tennis phenom Leylah Fernandez.

The 19-year-old from Laval, Que., helped Canada secure a spot in November's Billie Jean King Cup finals with a dominant 4-0 sweep of Latvia in a qualifier in Vancouver.

Fernandez, ranked 21st in the world, came in as the top-seeded Canadian and earned a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Latvia's No. 2 seed Darja Semenistaja on Friday. She followed the performance with a 6-2, 6-1 win Saturday over Daniela Vismane, Latvia's top player in the series.

"I was just a small part of a huge team and a great team effort. So I’m very happy I was able to help them in any way I could," the young Canadian said. "Just to see everybody smile at the end of the day was one of the moments I’ll remember forever.”

Canada's No. 2 seed Rebecca Marino, ranked 111th in the world, battled Vismane to a 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-3 victory on Friday.

Gabriela Dabrowski and Carol Zhao added another victory to Canada's tally on Saturday, topping Semenistaja and Vismane 6-1, 6-3 in doubles action.

Canada's showing in the qualifier proves the country deserves a prominent spot on tennis' world stage, said captain Heidi El Tabakh.

“I think it says that we belong at that level in the finals," she said. "I really do believe that we have a chance one day to win the Billie Jean King Cup.”

Canada came into the indoor hard court qualifier sitting in ninth spot in the Billie Jean King Cup rankings while Latvia was at No. 14.

Last year, the Canadians upset France in the round robin portion of the tournament before losing to the Russian Tennis Federation.

Latvia lost to the U.S. in qualifiers in 2021.

This year, the Latvians played without two of their top players, including world No. 11 Jelena Ostapenko, who suffered a wrist injury at the Miami Open.

Anastasija Sevastova is also out after announcing in January that she was taking a break from tennis to deal with an undisclosed ailment.

“Coming in this (qualifier), we knew it was going to be challenging," said captain Adrians Zguns. "We didn’t have our best players but it was exciting for our young players to be part of this and actually compete against high-level competition.”

Latvia had initially planned to play Liga Dekmeijere and Diana Marcinkevica in doubles action on Saturday but Zguns said he swapped the players out because he wanted Vismane and Semenistaja to have fun.

The match saw Dabrowski and Zhao cruise to a quick first-set win.

Latvia kept the second set tight until a double fault and a return into the net gave Canada a break for a 4-3 lead.

From there, the host country pulled away, with Dabrowski bumping the cushion to 5-3 with a massive ace before the Canadians sealed the match.

Dabrowski, ranked ninth in women's doubles, said she had fewer nerves going into the match knowing Canada had already clinched a spot in the finals.

“It’s a lot easier to go out there when you don’t have as much on the line," she said.

"But at the same time, we still have our country pride, we want to make each other proud, we want to make our team proud, we want the crowd to see great doubles. So I think, in that sense, I still put a lot of pressure on myself to play well and put on a good show.”

Earlier on Saturday, Fernandez took five of eight break points and won 76 per cent of her first serve points to top Vismane.

The Latvian world No. 230 played an athletic game, sprinting all over the court and varying her shot placement, but Fernandez held strong and did not concede a single breakacross the one hour long match.

The Canadian said she knew Vismane wouldn't be any easy opponent.

“We’re up 2-0, the opposing team, Latvia, they’re fighters. They will not give us the (win), they will not just hand it to us," she said.

"So I just tried to stay focused on my side and just keep moving as much as I can and bring one more ball back in and just either force the error or hit a winner."

Midway through the first set, she opened a game with a slick cross-court shot from near the net, then followed it up with an ace, denying Vismane a single point en route to a 5-1 lead.

The 21-year-old Latvian rallied in the next game, using her speed to prolong a rally that had both players criss-cross the court, making seemingly impossible shots. Vismane prevailed and cut Fernandez's lead to 5-2.

The second set saw Fernandez jump out to a 4-1 lead on a well-placed return. She celebrated with an enthusiastic yell and a fist pump before joining El Tabakh on the sideline for a break between games.

She closed out the set with a solid return game, and celebrated with another big fist pump before shaking hands with the entire Latvian box and high-fived everyone in the Canadian box.

Fernandez was runner-up at last year's U.S. Open but has been hit and miss in 2022, winning the Monterey Open in March before being eliminated early in Miami and Charleston.

She said her performance at this week's qualifier has helped her get back to the reason she plays tennis.

“This is the place I feel the most comfortable, so I was super happy to feel that way throughout the week," she said. "I was just able to express myself freely.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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