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Photos & story by Max Gao

April 27, 2018

Canada Edges Ukraine in Play-Off Tie to Retain World Group II Status

In front of an electric crowd at the temporary 1800-seat indoor venue at the newly-renamed IGA Stadium in Montréal, the Canadian doubles team of Bianca Andreescu and Gabriela Dabrowski capped off an exhilarating weekend of Fed Cup tennis on home soil with a decisive 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Ukraine’s Kateryna Bondarenko and Olga Savchuk to retain Canada’s position in World Group II for 2019.

It was the perfect ending to an unpredictable weekend of tennis for both teams, particularly for the Canadians who were forced to make last-minute changes after a rash of injuries hit the Canadian team on Saturday.

“I am very proud of our team. We knew we were playing against a tough opponent as they were ranked higher than us, but we fought hard,” said captain Sylvain Bruneau after Canada’s victory early Sunday evening. “Despite all the adversity that we faced this weekend, we managed to get the win. All the credit goes to the girls.”


Rubber 1: Heartbreak for Canada’s Andreescu; Tsurenko Draws First Blood for Ukraine

In a dramatic first day of action in La ville aux cents clochers, the drama would start before the first ball was hit as Françoise Abanda, who was set to kick off the tie for the Canadian team, suffered a periorbital contusion (a black eye) in a fall while warming up just minutes before the match.

That meant that a replacement would need to take Abanda’s place, and that’s where Andreescu, who warmed up with Abanda, came in ready to go within about 15 minutes.

Bianca Andreescu stepped up to play the first rubber when Francoise Abanda was injured in practice.

The 17-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. played what she later called one of the best matches of her life, jumping out to a 6-4, 3-1 lead after recovering from an early break down in both sets against world number 41 Lesia Tsurenko. The Canadian teenager, currently ranked number 197 in the world, surprised her much more experienced opponent with her offensive mindset and heavy hitting, and was able to play with the match very well on her racquet for the first half of the match.

But as the match began to wear on, a significant dip in efficiency from Andreescu allowed Tsurenko back into the match, who used her experience to claw her way back with some stunning defence and even better shotmaking. The 28-year-old Ukrainian would reel off five games in a row to eventually take the second set, 6-3, and wasted no time in asserting herself early in the decider, and never really looked back, against an understandably fatigued Andreescu.

Trailing 4-0, after doubling over a couple of times earlier in the set, Andreescu scarily went down after hitting a backhand during the first point of the fifth game, clutching at her left calf. Not long thereafter, the umpire would declare the match over, at which point a tearful Andreescu began to receive treatment on the court before getting wheeled off in a wheelchair some 10 minutes later, unable to bend her right leg. Tsurenko would thus earn the first point of the tie for the Ukrainian team with a 4-6, 6-3, 4-0 ret. victory.

Ham string cramps force Bianca to retire.

“Right now, emotionally, I’m pretty devastated with what happened because I think I was on a roll; I was playing my best tennis, I was giving my all on the court and that’s all I could ask from myself,” she explained in a written statement to the media. “And then sadly, I started cramping. I started feeling it a bit in the second set and then just as the match was going on, my body was tightening up and then, yeah, it happened.”

Andreescu did go on to clear up that while there was plenty of concern as she was wheeled off the court, there was nothing seriously wrong with her besides a tight hamstring. “I just think it was all the emotions that kind of built up before the match as well,” she explained about the cramps. “I think I was well-hydrated. I was drinking, I eat well, so I don’t think that affected me. I think it was all the emotions. And also I did some tough fitness the other day because I didn’t know I was going to play today. I’m not going to lie, I was a bit sore—so maybe that also contributed.”

Rubber 2: Bouchard Brilliant in Fed Cup Return

After an unfortunate end to the first rubber of the tie, all Canadian hopes lay on the shoulders of Eugenie Bouchard, who was playing her first Fed Cup tie since 2015. Bouchard’s struggles, which have been well documented over the course of the last couple of seasons, have seen her ranking drop to number 117 in the world, but there were, definitely, plenty of positives to take away from her 6-2, 7-5 win over Ukraine’s Kateryna Bondarenko on Saturday.

After breezing through the opening set, the Montreal native found herself in a bit of trouble after going down an early break, and a looming third set began to look increasingly imminent as Bondarenko served at 3-1, 40-love. But remarkably, a huge return winner from Bouchard began to turn the tide back in favour of the Canadian, who reeled off the next four points to recover the early break.

Both players continued to struggle on serve for the remainder of the set, but it was Bouchard who was able to capitalize on a late break to eventually serve out the match, doing so with three huge 180 km/h serves—the last of which followed by an aggressive inside-out forehand winner to level the tie for the host nation.

Eugenie Bouchard is energized by her strong performance in the second rubber.

“This was one my best matches of the year. The loud support of the crowd definitely helped me,” said Bouchard after her impressive victory in both English and French. “I felt I was trying to play my game, be aggressive. I also thought I was defending pretty well. I’m happy that I just stayed focused and positive. There was a lot of noise going on—it’s different than normal matches—so you really have to stay calm between points and try to breathe and that’s what I tried to do.”

Despite getting that crucial first win for Canada going into Sunday, the biggest takeaway from Bouchard’s press conference, besides how pleased she was with her performance, was perhaps the fact that she did not mince words when it came to talking about the pain she felt in her left hand after chasing down a drop shot to break for 3-2 in the opening set.

“My hand really hurts. I’m going to see the doctor afterward and I’ll see how bad it is,” she said. “But it’s pretty painful. I saw the doctor before coming up to my press conference and I will see him again later. I hope to be okay to play tomorrow.”


Rubber 3: Bouchard Edges Tsurenko in Third-Set Thriller

After a bizarre day marred by injuries for the Canadian team, the line-up going into Sunday was very much up in the air. One thing, however, was for certain: Bouchard would have to take on Tsurenko in the first reverse singles match of the day.

From the start, it was clear that Bouchard would have her work cut out for her, as she was forced to play catch up right from the beginning, falling behind an early break from which she would eventually recover, only to surrender it again later in the set en route to dropping the opening set to the Ukrainian, 6-4.

Tsurenko plays with determination in a marathon third rubber.

After a sketchy start, Bouchard began to find her groove midway through the second set, much to the delight of a packed crowd at the temporary indoor venue at IGA Stadium. Taking full advantage of a small window of opportunity gifted to her by a double fault from Tsurenko, the 24-year-old would earn the first break of the second set in the sixth game before going on to consolidate a game later to take a commanding 5-2 lead. From there, she would continue to pressure the Ukrainian’s serve, eventually forcing a double fault on her second set point to draw level by virtue of winning the second set, 6-2.

The decider proved to be the highlight of the match, and arguably of the entire tie, with both players giving everything they possibly had left to try and put their team within one win of securing a berth in World Group II for 2019. While both players had their fair share of chances to earn that crucial first break of the decider, it was the 28-year-old Ukrainian who was able to draw first blood after a marathon eight-deuce fifth game, breaking at the sixth time of asking to move ahead 3-2.

That advantage, however, would disappear almost immediately a game later as Bouchard would break straight back with the help of a stunning backhand passing shot down the line to draw level at three games each. While both players would hold their serves for the remainder of the set to force a winner-take-all, final-set tiebreak, it didn’t happen without a lack of plot twists and drama of the highest order.

With both players refusing to give an inch, the length of each rally gradually began to reach unbelievable levels— long enough to have both women doubling over or on the ground gasping for air between points. This incredible exertion began to show on the faces of both players, who were in understandable agony. On one side, there was Tsurenko, who began to cramp while serving to stay in the match at 4-5 that she was forced to spin in 110 km/h first and second serves and take a big cut at every ball within her strike zone. On the other, there was Bouchard who started to grimace as her left thigh began to lock up between points, which she tried to treat with ice between games to try to fend off the cramps.

In the end, the match would come down to two points at 5-all in the final-set tiebreak. In a game of such thin margins, it’s very rare for a match to be decided by just two points, but in this case, those two points ended up making all the difference. With both players struggling to move laterally, it was Tsurenko who would crack first, hitting a forehand long that she just could not set up for due to her limited mobility. That would bring up match point for Bouchard, who would make no mistake, closing out the match with a huge serve to secure a thrilling 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(5) victory in two hours and 39 minutes. The third set, alone, took 73 minutes.

Eugenie shows emotion in her win against the higher ranked Tsurenko

“It was kind of insane, we were both playing well,” a fatigued but beaming Bouchard said in her on-court interview after the match. “I think I raised my level in the second set. At the end it was just a physical battle and a mental battle. I saw her suffering. I was suffering—we were both in pain. It was just who could hold [it] together and stay in there longer and have nerves of steel to play when it counted. It was 5-all in the third-set tiebreak…like two points decided this match and it’s like crazy.”

“This was a great win for me. It was a tough battle, but I am glad to have come out on top,” Bouchard said a couple hours later in her press conference. “I am confident in our team and I know that the girls will give it their all to try and win this tie.”

Rubber 4: Bondarenko Rallies to Force Decisive Doubles Match

With Abanda officially out after being diagnosed with whiplash early Sunday and Andreescu’s condition still questionable, it was up to Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski to try and clinch the tie for the Canadians, either in singles or in doubles.

Ranked number 10 in the world in doubles, Dabrowski was competing in just her fourth singles match of the year, but looked well on her way to clinching a decisive victory after earning an early break en route to clinching the opening set in just under half an hour, 6-3.

Unfortunately, that would be as far as Dabrowski would go as her lack of match play on the singles court began to show against a speedy and more offensive-minded Bondarenko, who broke twice in the second and twice in the third to cruise to a 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory, and force an intriguing decisive doubles rubber.

Bianca and Gaby Dabrowski stay intense and focused in the rubber that will decide who wins the tie.

Rubber 5: Canada Clinches Classic as Dabrowski and Andreescu Stun Bondarenko and Savchuk

Around a half hour after their singles match, Bondarenko and Dabrowski would return to the court to compete in the decisive doubles rubber, with the former teaming up with Olga Savchuk and the latter with Andreescu, who said she was feeling better after a full day of treatment on her left leg.

Bianca and Gaby hug to celebrate their winning performance.

Playing together for the very first time, Andreescu and Dabrowski would get off to a great start, trading breaks early with the Ukrainians before breaking Savchuk to move ahead 5-3, at which point Dabrowski would successfully serve out the 29-minute opening set to move the Canadians a set clear of victory.

With their perfect 6-0 career Fed Cup doubles record as a team on the line, Bondarenko and Savchuk began to go on the offensive in the second, putting themselves within a point of a 5-1 lead before Andreescu and Dabrowski pegged them back, playing some inspired tennis to draw level at 4-all. Down love-30 in the following game, the Ukrainians remarkably reeled off eight points in a row seemingly out of nowhere to force a one-set shootout for the tie.

In the decider, it was the all-Ontarian team who was able to strike first, breaking the match wide open with a break at 2-all, which they consolidated at love, and another one at 4-2. While they admittedly got tight on the two match points that they had on their own serve at 5-2 before getting broken, the Canadians would quickly regroup to break Bondarenko at love to secure a dramatic 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory over the Ukrainians.

A big high five by the whole team at managing to win the tie against Ukraine.

“I can’t even describe this. It’s such an amazing feeling to be part of the Fed Cup team for Canada, and playing with Gaby, a Grand Slam champion,” Andreescu said in the pair’s on-court interview. “I think I learned a thing or two. This is a really special moment for me and for the team as well.”

Canada’s victory on Sunday means they will retain their position in World Group II for 2019, while Ukraine will be relegated to Europe/Africa Group I, which will include the likes of Great Britain, Poland, and Russia.