King empire

Fernandez dominates Vismane, Canada sweeps Latvia to advance to Billie Jean King Cup final

VANCOUVER — A big home win will be a lasting memory for Canadian tennis phenom Leylah Fernandez. The 19-year-old from Laval, Quebec.

VANCOUVER — A big home win will be a lasting memory for Canadian tennis phenom Leylah Fernandez.

The 19-year-old from Laval, Que., helped Canada secure a place in the Billie Jean King Cup final in November with a dominating 4-0 sweep of Latvia in a qualifying match at Vancouver.

Fernandez, ranked 21st in the world, arrived as the Canadian favorite and earned a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Latvia’s No. 2 seed Darja Semenistaja on Friday. She followed up the performance with a 6-2, 6-1 victory on Saturday over Daniela Vismane, the best Latvian player in the series.

“I was just a small part of a huge team and a great team effort, so I’m very happy that I was able to help them in any way I could,” said the young Canadian. “Just seeing everyone smile at the end of the day was one of the moments I will remember forever.”

Canada’s second seed, Rebecca Marino, ranked 111th in the world, took on Vismane for a 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-3 win on Friday.

Gabriela Dabrowski and Carol Zhao added another victory to Canada’s tally on Saturday, beating Semenistaja and Vismane 6-1, 6-3 in doubles.

Canada’s performance in qualifying proves the country deserves a top spot on the world tennis stage, said captain Heidi El Tabakh.

“I think that says we belong at that level in the final,” she said. “I really believe we have a chance one day to win the Billie Jean King Cup.”

Canada entered the indoor hard court qualifier sitting ninth in the Billie Jean King Cup standings while Latvia was in 14th place.

Last year, the Canadians upset France in the round robin portion of the tournament before losing to the Russian Tennis Federation.

Latvia lost to USA in the 2021 qualifiers.

This year, the Latvians have played without two of their best players, including world number 11 Jelena Ostapenko, who suffered a wrist injury at the Miami Open.

Anastasija Sevastova is also out after announcing in January that she was taking a break from tennis to deal with an undisclosed illness.

“Coming into this (qualifier) ​​we knew it was going to be tough,” captain Adrians Zguns said. “We didn’t have our best players but it was exciting for our young players to be part of that and compete at a competitive level.

Latvia originally planned to face La Liga Dekmeijere and Diana Marcinkevica in the doubles on Saturday, but Zguns said he swapped the players because he wanted Vismane and Semenistaja to have fun.

The match saw Dabrowski and Zhao claim an early first-set victory.

Latvia kept the second set tight until a double fault and a return in the net gave Canada a break for a 4-3 lead.

From there, the host nation pulled away, Dabrowski making it 5-3 with a huge ace before the Canadians sealed the game.

Dabrowski, ranked ninth in women’s doubles, said she had fewer nerves heading into the match knowing Canada had already clinched a berth in the final.

“It’s a lot easier to go out there when you don’t have so much at stake,” she said.

“But at the same time, we still have pride in our country, we want to make each other proud, we want to make our team proud, we want the crowd to see some great one-twos. So I think, in that sense, I always put a lot of pressure on myself to play well and put on a good show.

Earlier on Saturday, Fernandez took five of eight break points and won 76% of his first service points to top Vismane.

The Latvian world No. 230 played an athletic game, sprinting all over the court and varying her shot placement, but Fernandez held on and conceded no breakthrough during the hour-long match.

The Canadian said she knew Vismane would not be an easy opponent.

“We lead 2-0, the opposing team, Latvia, they are fighters. They won’t give us the (victory), they won’t just give it to us,” she said.

“So I just tried to stay focused on my side and keep moving as much as I could and bring one more ball in and force the error or hit a winner.”

Midway through the first set, she opened a game with a slick cross shot near the net, then followed it up with an ace, denying Vismane a single point en route to a 5-1 lead.

The 21-year-old Latvian rallied in the following game, using her speed to extend a rally that saw both players criss-crossing the pitch, making seemingly impossible shots. Vismane prevailed and cut Fernandez’s lead to 5-2.

The second set saw Fernandez take a 4-1 lead on a well-placed return. She celebrated with an enthusiastic shout and a punch before joining El Tabakh on the sidelines for a break between games.

She closed the set with a solid comeback and celebrated with another big fist pump before shaking hands with the entire Latvian box and slamming everyone into the Canadian box.

Fernandez was a runner-up at last year’s US Open but was hit and miss in 2022, winning the Monterey Open in March before being knocked out early in Miami and Charleston.

She said her performance in qualifying this week helped her find her reason for playing tennis.

“It’s where I feel the most comfortable, so I was super happy to feel that way throughout the week,” she said. “I was just able to express myself freely.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 16, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press