The first day of the Billie Jean King Cup (BJKC) qualifiers had commenced. Leylah Fernandez against Darja Semenistaja; Rebecca Marino vs Daniela Vismane. And boy was it everything I could have hoped for, after three days watching both Team Canada and Team Latvia practice. The second day followed another win for Leylah, and a passionate doubles match playing Carol Zhao and Gabriela Dabrowski vs Darja Semenistja and Daniela Vismane.
“We could create some problems for nations,” said Michael Downey, President and CEO of Tennis Canada, on Team Canada’s player lineup. What’s most exciting for Michael during the game weekend in Vancouver? “It’s just nice to be back in business. That’s what’s most exciting. These are things we used to take for granted. And now we’re in a situation that we actually get to host people in lounges like this, see 5,000 people out there. It’s more business as usual we haven’t had for years. We haven’t hosted home tie since probably 2018.”
At 19 years of age from Laval Canada, Leylah is currently ranked 21st in the world. Earlier this year, Leylah successfully defended her title at the Monterrey Open and reached a career high ranking of number 19 in the world; Last summer she defeated three top five players en route to the 2021 US Open final; made her Billie Jean King Cup debut in 2019 and is playing in her first home tie this weekend.
Also of the same age, Darja Semenistaja from Riga, Latvia, is currently ranked 389th in the world. In 2019 she reached a career ranking of number 39 in the ITF Junior Rankings; Earlier this year she won her first ITF 25K title in Cancun, Mexico. Today Darja played in her first ever Billie Jean King Cup tie.
After catching her breath Leylah Annie Fernandez said, “I always want to start strong and fast, so I’m very glad that my balls went in, and that your cheers; your encouragement did help a lot. So, be as loud on the next match! Let’s go!” Leylah made it a point to greet her fans (including us with a selfie); she wants to see more young girls like her to pick up the fast-paced game of tennis. “I’m very glad there’s a group of girls that came, and watched us practice. But, also I’m very, very happy that the girls are playing tennis. It is important to me because tennis has brought so much for me, so many positivity, great opportunities; I just want to say to them: just to pick up sport, pick up a tennis racket just to have fun and interact with other kids. Go outside! Have that positive environment,” Leylah said.
Arash Madani, sports commentator for Rogers Sportsnet: “Your down the line quarter hand has become the trademark, and it was cooking today. Just how well were you executing that shot?”
“Honestly, I don’t remember much about the match, but I was just trying to play my game, and that down the line was very important for me, and I’m glad that the balls went in on the right time, so I’m just happy that I was able to execute my game as best as I can,” Leylah said. Her forehand was very dominant throughout, taking advantage of the short balls coming her way. In the second set Leylah struggled a bit during a double fault, she came out of that yet again strong with quick decisions, “I just tried to stay positive.” Leylah had great success with passing shots between her opponent Darja, and although the said they don’t train for them, the ease of passing over the net was undeniable.
Rebecca Marino was just as dominant on the court as her teammate Leylah in the first match. Daniela Vismane threw hard double backhand swings, but after 3 games the match was settled with Rebecca scoring 17 aces and 105 points total, compared to Daniela with 0 Aces and 87 point total score. Marino spins her body into her shots and jumps with full strength, meanwhile Daniela has a very strong hand and pumps the ball deep into her opponent’s court. Being from Vancouver, the crowd goes wild as Rebecca comes on to court and with every point she makes. “It is my bread and butter ,” says Rebecca, “I want to continue the good feeling I have, not think too hard about it, but just go in feeling good and light on my feet.
Tennis is a beautiful game to watch, the strength from these ladies is exhilarating. Roughly 4,000 fans sat in their seats enjoying the first two matches the first day; 5,000 fans the second day.
I mean, it’s a competitive sport and players have to win, I exclaimed when Michael Downey and I shared a chat in the VIP lounge about the psyche between players and wins. “Yeah, and the interesting thing too is you’ve got the dynamics, and it would be to reverse if the Latvians were ahead, is you’ve got the dynamics where Rebecca is sitting there going, damn right I want Layla to win, but in the back of her mind, she’s got to be ready. So she’s got to be thinking, Layla could be losing here, I got to get mentally ready to go. That’s not easy to do, right?”
We would study, yeah. We would do the book, we would go back and look at film, know what their tendencies are. Now, they’re not all that high ranked so there wouldn’t be a lot of good data because they probably played at the challenger level more than anything else. So there would be a better book on how to play Leylah than there would be on how to play the Latvians. The book just means available data.”
So what’s so interesting about tennis? Stop it, what a silly question. The sport promotes a healthy lifestyle with players almost always constantly in motion. Strength and agility are just as important in the sport as social and psychological benefits. The girls were ready to win, but also showed a beautiful sportsmanship. Gabby and Carol were not only teammates but close friends in real life, and their dynamic shows on court.
Heidi el Tabakh and the girls were thrilled to be qualified for the finals after a successful second game on Saturday. The ladies held up the Canadian flag and ran a full circle, full smiles, around the court. “It means the world. I’m super happy to just have that opportunity to go to the finals, to have the opportunity to play and to qualify for it. I was just a small part of a huge team, of a great team’s effort so I’m very happy that I was able to help them in any way I could. And just to see everybody’s smile at the end of the day is one of the moments that I’ll remember forever,” said Leylah. The young player’s career started with Billie Jean King, “when growing up, my parents, especially my dad, would tell us a little bit about her story, little by little, because of course, when I was young, I did not understand. I would just say, Yes. Wow. That’s interesting. But I think as I was getting older, as I was traveling a little bit more, I kind of understood what was happening around the world and what was happening back home. So that’s when those thoughts came in and that’s what I wanted to do for the next generations. And then once I understood a little bit about her goal, Billie Jean’s goal, I talked a little bit with my parents and we all kind of agreed that we want to progress tennis. We want to help it in any way, shape or form so that it can become a sport that everybody can enjoy and that the family can travel with the kids or can just to enjoy the time with the kids and the kids don’t have that pressure that they need to become a professional to help their family. It’s not that. It’s just, they need to have fun on a court. And I think that’s what I want kids to have.”
It was long overdue that the former Fed Cup was renamed after Billie Jean, “This is actually, I think it’s the first global sporting event that’s actually been named in honor of a women. And there’s no better.” Having the Billie Jean King Cup hosted in Vancouver was a fantastic opportunity for young players from Tennis BC to speak with their role models during the second practice day. Playing tennis improves alertness, tactical thinking, mental strength and so much more. Maybe it’s time to pick up a racket and go to the neighbourhood courts this weekend, plus, studies show playing tennis increases your life by almost 10 years. Off to the courts we go!
Thank you to both teams Canada and Latvia for making me feel so welcome the week on court and in media rooms. The ITF has some amazing hardworking staff making sure media felt welcome and important.