When longtime tennis coach Mike Thomson started working with Canada's Marina Stakusic during her junior days, he could tell almost immediately that she had tremendous potential.
The telltale sign was the sound the ball made when it came off her racket.
"Everything is in the middle of the racket every single time and that was Marina when she was eight," Thomson said. "She just hit the ball solidly every single time."
Stakusic, now 18, is enjoying a breakout performance this week at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals. She was a surprise selection for singles play and earned a 6-3, 6-1 upset win over Rebeka Masarova of host Spain in her debut Wednesday.
"I think she handled herself incredibly well when she was under pressure, when her opponent was maybe giving signs of coming back to life," said Sylvain Bruneau, a high-performance consultant with Tennis Canada. "I think she was fabulous in making sure that didn't happen."
Stakusic, from Mississauga, Ont., developed her skills as a youngster at the Eglinton Flats Winter Tennis Club. Thomson has served as tennis director at the west Toronto facility for over two decades.
"Nothing ever got to her," Thomson recalled in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "She never got mad on a tennis court. Tennis is such a mental game. You have to keep your composure at all times.
"Marina is always composed on the tennis court — always. Right from eight years old."
Stakusic played like a veteran in front of a partisan crowd on Wednesday, showing no signs of jitters on one of the sport's biggest stages. Captain Heidi el Tabakh gave her the nod over more experienced teammates Rebecca Marino and Eugenie Bouchard.
"We knew she was in full confidence mode," Bruneau said. "She had done really well recently. That's a factor you want to consider. We also felt that she's young, up and coming, we felt it would be a lot of pressure on her opponent's shoulders to play her and that's exactly what happened."
She got the starting assignment again Thursday and came through with a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over Poland's Magdalena Frech. Leylah Fernandez again followed with a singles victory to secure Canada's berth in the final four at the 12-team event.
The Canadians had a day off ahead of a Saturday semifinal against Czechia, which defeated the United States 2-1 Friday to advance. Canada's only other trip to the tournament semifinals in 1988 resulted in a loss to the former Czechoslovakia, which split into Czechia and Slovakia on Dec. 31, 1992.
The final was scheduled for Sunday.
Stakusic has won three lower-level ITF tournaments this year since returning from a six-month injury layoff. She's not afraid to be aggressive on court and use her well-rounded game to her advantage.
"She's got a lot of tools in her toolbox," Bruneau said from Seville. "She's got a great backhand slice, she's able to do angles, she's able to change the pace of the ball, which combined with her really heavy ground strokes is quite interesting.
"She loves to come in (to the net) actually. She comes in a lot to finish points, so she's really good at the net. So you put all of that together, she has a very complete game."
Once the BJK Cup Finals are complete, Bruneau said he'll join Stakusic at a Challenger tournament in Portugal. He said after some rest, she will split off-season training between Montreal and Florida.
"I think she's going to be a really accomplished player," he said. "There's no doubt."
Stakusic, the world No. 258, has yet to play a main draw match on the WTA Tour. She reached the final round of qualifying at the National Bank Open last summer in Montreal.
Stakusic was named ITF player of the month for September.
"It's a tennis instructor's dream to watch somebody like that hit a tennis ball," Thomson said. "There's really not much to teach somebody like that. The package comes to you. It's amazing."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press