Canada’s first trip to the elite World Group of women’s tennis suffered a setback on Sunday when Karolina Pliskova beat Gabriela Dabrowski 6-4, 6-2.
Pliskova, winning her second singles match in as many days, sealed Czech Republic’s victory in the best-of-five Fed Cup series to send her country – the defending champion – to the semifinals of the tournament.
Canada will now compete in a playoff to keep its World Group status in April. The opponent and venue has yet to be decided.
Dabrowski started well for Canada, holding serve twice before breaking Pliskova and then consolidating to take a 4-1 lead in front of a supportive home crowd at Québec City’s Laval University indoor venue. That seemed to wake up her Czech opponent, who stormed back to win five straight games and the set 6-4.
Pliskova, the world number 22 player, beat Canadian youngster Francoise Abanda a day earlier. Dabrowski lost to Tereza Smitkova on Saturday, which brought Canada to must-win territory on Sunday.
In the second set Pliskova was merciless, helped by two break points she jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Dabrowski managed to win one of those back but dropped serve again before Pliskova closed out the set, match and series with an efficient service game.
Both countries played without its top singles players, however the absence of Eugenie Bouchard hurt Canada more than Petra Kvitova and Lucie Sarafova’s omission for the Czechs, who have an incredible nine women in the top 100 singles rankings.
After Bouchard, no other Canadian women’s singles player is currently in the top 100 globally, however Abanda, 18, and 16-year old Charlotte Robillard-Millette – both on the Fed Cup squad this weekend – are players Tennis Canada believes can make an impression in future rankings.
Life without Eugenie Bouchard proved difficult for Canada’s Fed Cup team on day one of World Group play where the Czech Republic roared ahead to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
Karolina Pliskova beat Françoise Abanda 6-2, 6-4 and then Tereza Smitkova bested Gabriela Dabrowski 6-1, 6-2. The Czechs could close out the tie early on Sunday when Pliskova is expected to play Dabrowski.
A lively crowd at Québec City’s Laval University sports complex, known by the acronym PEPS, was ready for the Canadian debut in Fed Cup World Group, the annual tournament reserved for the elite eight nations in women’s tennis. Unfortunately for Canada, the defending champion Czechs are the strongest side of them and all and they weren’t timid visitors.
With Australian Open quarterfinalist Bouchard tending to WTA tour commitments in Europe, and a slight injury to another experienced player Sharon Fichman, youngster Abanda was thrust into the opening match against world no. 22 player Pliskova. Abanda just turned 18 two days prior to her first opportunity to represent her country. Her nervousness was clear from the start and Pliskova took advantage by breaking serve on the first game.
“It was definitely a new experience for me, a different vibe on the court,” Abanda said of the Fed Cup setting after the match. “It was a little bit difficult.” After dropping the opening set 6-2, the young Canadian did find composure in the second however, got into trouble halfway through.
With the set tied 2-2, Abanda fought back from three break points but ultimately couldn’t hold serve. She had a chance to get that one back down 5-4, but wasn’t able to punish Pliskova on the final game despite the Czech star making multiple errors.
“I believe that I had a shot to make it five-all. It’s an opportunity I should’ve taken, it didn’t happen. It’s unfortunate,” Abanda recounted. Her newfound confidence had caught Pliskova’s attention.
“In the second set she (played) better,” Pliskova said of Abanda’s improvement from the baseline. “She is young… she didn’t have anything to lose against me.”
Like Canada, the Czechs were also without two of their big singles stars, most notably current Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, although Smitkova filled in admirably.
After dropping the opening game in her match against Dabrowski, Smitkova rallied to win six straight games. In the second set after losing serve early, she broke Dabrowski on her next three service games before closing out the day.
“I have the opportunity to play Fed Cup because our best players didn’t play. I took the chance and we were successful,” Smitkova told the press. The second set was much closer than the score suggests, as Dabrowski had three break point chances that went begging.
“I try my best on every point,” Dabrowski said, noting she wasn’t used to playing with such loud atmosphere and that is something on which she’ll have to improve. “I felt I was very well prepared to play, I’m not sure mentally or physically I would do anything different (Sunday)” when she will likely have a chance to save the tie for Canada against Pliskova.