Former tennis star Helen Kelesi ready to cheer on Canada in BJK Cup semifinals

TORONTO — Even though Helen Kelesi is bedridden with the flu, the retired Canadian tennis legend will be cheering on Leylah Fernandez and Canada in the semifinals of the Billie Jean King Cup on Saturday.

Kelesi, then 19, was a stalwart for Canada 25 years ago, the only other time it advanced to the semifinals of the women's team tennis event.

She teamed with Jill Hetherington and Rene Simpson in Melbourne, Australia, to reach the final four of what was then known as the Federation Cup back in 1988.

"Canada reaching the semifinals of the BJK Cup is very exciting," Kelesi wrote in an email, explaining she could not do a phone interview because of a bad case of the flu.

"I am so happy for the whole team."

In Seville, Spain, this year's team of Fernandez, Gabriela Dabrowski, Eugenie Bouchard, Rebecca Marino and rookie Marina Stakusic marched to the semifinals with 3-0 wins against the host team and Poland in the group stage.They will have a chance to avenge Kelesi's Canadian team when they face Czechia in the semifinals on Saturday.

In 1988, Kelesi spearheaded eighth-seeded Canada to victory against South Korea and Finland. Canada then upended Sweden in the quarterfinals but lost to the former Czechoslovakia, now Czechia and Slovakia, in the semis.

Kelesi, known as "Hurricane Helen," was ranked 19th in the world in 1988. The native of Thornhill, Ont. breezed through the first three matches of the Federation Cup with straight-set wins.

Hetherington won her quarterfinal match first, defeating Maria Strandlund, and then Kelesi followed up with another singles victory, defeating former No. 10 Catarina Lindqvist.

"It's probably the most important win of my life in representing my country," Kelesi said in 1988. "It puts us into the semifinals and that's history. I'm, of course, excited to have been part of it, but I would not have been able to clinch it if it hadn't been for Jill.

"Watching Jill win got me psyched up and ready to play. Team competition really lifts me."

In the semifinals against Czechoslovakia, Hetherington opened with a loss to Radka Zrubrakova (6-7, 6-3, 3-6). Kelesi then dropped a two-set match to Helena Sukova (0-6, 1-6).

Kelesi and Simpson lost their doubles match to Jana Novotna and Jana Pospisilova (6-7, 3-6).

The Czechs advanced to defeat Russia in the final.

''This has been a great week for me and the whole team,'' said Kelesi, who announced after the team event that she planned to take two months off. ''I typically like to take a break or two each season and this is one of them.''

Hetherington, of Peterborough, Ont., was 24 in 1988. She advanced to the women's doubles finals of the 1988 U.S. Open and 1989 Australian Open with Patty Fendick.

Toronto's Simpson was 22. She benefited from the Federation Cup, pushing her way to a career-best 70th in the WTA rankings in 1989.

Simpson died at 47 in October 2013 after a battle with brain cancer. After playing in the Federation Cup from 1988 to 1998, she later coached Canada's entry in the team event.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.

Tim Wharnsby, The Canadian Press