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Canada through to Billie Jean King Cup finals with 3-2 win over Belgium

The location of the finals is yet to be announced
Canada’s Leylah Fernandez returns to Belgium’s Ysaline Bonaventure during a Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers singles match, in Vancouver, on Saturday, April 15, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Grinding through adversity made a big win that much sweeter for some of Canada’s top women’s tennis players this weekend.

After losing their highest-ranked player to injury and watching a teammate sidelined, the Canadians persevered to earn a 3-2 win over Belgium at a Billie Jean King Cup qualifier in Vancouver.

It’s the first time in four meetings that Canada has bested Belgium in the women’s World Cup of tennis competition.

“A lot of ups and downs, a total roller-coaster ride,” doubles specialist Gabriela Dabrowski said of the two-day competition. “We thought we were down and out. We weren’t. And I think that just goes to show the resiliency of every single one of our players on this team. It’s been really special.”

Dabrowski and Leylah Fernandez secured Canada’s spot in November’s finals with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Kirsten Flipkens and Greet Minnen in doubles action.

Earlier in the day, Fernandez of Laval, Que., rallied for a gritty 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 win over Ysaline Bonaventure and Minnen downed Toronto’s Katherine Sebov 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Canada breezed through the first four points of Saturday’s one-hour, four-minute doubles match, taking a 1-0 lead and didn’t turn back. The two sides rallied several times, with the home nation consistently finding ways to come out on top.

Dabrowski showed why she sits seventh in the world women’s doubles rankings midway through the first set, deftly tapping a backhanded shot over the net to end an extended back-and-forth and put Canada up 5-1.

Playing her third match in two days, Fernandez looked anything but tired, darting across the court to scoop up balls and blast them back at the Belgians using her powerful forehand.

“Playing with (Dabrowski) is always a privilege,” Fernandez said. “She’s such a great doubles specialist. She sees the court so beautifully and I get to experience that with her. It’s something I would like to learn and get better at along the way.”

Fernandez — No. 50 in the WTA’s singles rankings — cruised to a 6-0, 6-3 victory over Yanina Wickmayer on Friday, but ran into trouble early in her singles match against Bonaventure.

The 86th-ranked Belgian, who captured a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino on Friday, took a 4-1 lead in the first set as Fernandez fought to find her serve, chalking up four double faults in the first five games.

As the match progressed, the 20-year-old Canadian began mixing up her shots and luring her opponent to the net, forcing errors. She cut the deficit to 4-3 before Bonaventure took the set.

The players repeatedly traded points across a tightly contested second, with neither stealing the momentum.

Fernandez took a 6-5 lead thanks to a challenge that ruled Bonaventure’s shot just out of play. The Canadian crowd roared as she returned to the court from a changeover and Fernandez responded by breaking Bonaventure in the deciding game.

The former U.S. Open finalist continued to dominate in the third jumping out to a 3-0 cushion.

Bonaventure scored a break point late in the set to make it 5-2, but Fernandez responded with a break of her own to clinch the two-hour, 26-minute match.

Bonaventure was emotional after the doubles match, wiping tears from her cheeks as she spoke to reporters.

“It’s very disappointing because I have the feeling that I was so close to bring the point for the team,” she said.

“It’s frustrating. We all did so good and we had such a great week together, such a great team and a good atmosphere. So it’s frustrating because we really wanted to win this one. I’m sad.”

The second singles showdown of the day saw Minnen down Sebov in three sets.

The match was initially scheduled as a battle between Marino and Wickmayer but both players were swapped just before the match after fighting through ailments on Friday.

Marino felt ill during her match and Canadian captain Heidi El Tabakh didn’t want to risk putting her on the court Saturday.

“Rebecca played an extremely tough match. It was draining physically and mentally,” she said. “I thought playing Kat, someone who’s fresh, was a good decision.”

Wickmayer rolled her ankle Friday, an injury that made serving painful.

“It’s one thing to lose but another thing to get injured and not be able to help your team on the second day,” Wickmayer said. “So it was a really tough day for me, but I tried to be there and support the team as much as I could. … We all gave it everything we got. Nothing else we could do, really.”

Sebov was a late addition to Canada’s roster, replacing Canada’s top-ranked player Bianca Andreescu after she tore two tendons in her ankle at the Miami Open on March 27.

Andreescu, the world No. 27, sat courtside in Vancouver, cheering on her teammates.

The 24-year-old Sebov climbed to a career-high 136th spot in the rankings last week after a loss to Swiss powerhouse Belinda Bencic at the Charleston Open on April 5.

She admitted, though, that playing in front of a Canadian crowd was “overwhelming.”

“I’m used to more of a quiet setting, being on court 17 and no one’s watching,” Sebov said. “So it’s a little bit of an adjustment, just staying focused even though there’s a lot going on, a lot of noise and lights flickering. I think it’s just something I need to get used to.”

The Vancouver qualifier is one of nine being held around the globe this week, with winners advancing to the finals in a yet-to-be announced location.

Last year, Canada swept Latvia in a qualifier and advanced to the finals in Glasgow, where they topped Italy before falling to Switzerland in group play. Switzerland went on to win the world title.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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