VANCOUVER — Heidi El Tabakh knows her Canadian squad will be in tough when they face Belgium at a Billie Jean King Cup qualifier next month.
The Canadian captain believes, however, that her team has the edge in one crucial area — grit.
“I honestly think it plays a huge role, if not the biggest,” she said. “Because everyone at that level is able to play pretty incredible tennis. And I think at the end of the day, it comes down to mental toughness.”
Tennis Canada announced earlier this week that Bianca Andreescu, Leylah Fernandez, Rebecca Marino and doubles ace Gabriela Dabrowski will represent the Maple Leaf in the Gainbridge qualifiers at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum on April 14 and 15.
Picking teams for international events is getting tougher as Canadian tennis players continue to rise on the world stage, El Tabakh said.
“It’s a nice problem to have,” she said with a laugh. “We have some of our best players — if not our best players — participating this year. So very, very exciting. Hopefully everyone’s healthy. And we’ll be ready to go.”
All four women taking part in this year’s qualifier have proven that they’ll fight through the final point in any given match, El Tabakh said, making Canada a tough team to play against.
The players have had strong starts to their 2023 campaigns, she added.
“I think they’re all playing incredible tennis and have had pretty good starts to the year,” she said. “All the matches have been pretty competitive, they’ve had great wins and really, really close, tough losses.”
Andreescu is currently Canada’s top-ranked player on the WTA Tour at No. 36. The 22-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., won the U.S. Open in 2019 and will be playing in her first Billie Jean King Cup tie on home soil since 2018.
The international women’s tournament is the one time of the year where Canada’s female tennis players and coaches all come together with the same goal, El Tabakh said, and having Andreescu on the team will be a big boost.
“She’s an incredible person as well as a player. She has that energy about her,” the captain said.
“All the players feed off each other. And Bianca, as a Grand Slam champion, brings a lot to the table. She’ll be able to bring the most out of the other girls.”
Andreescu wasn’t on the Canadian squad that swept Latvia in a Billie Jean King Cup qualifier last year. That group featured Fernandez, of Laval, Que., Vancouver’s Marino and Ottawa’s Dabrowski, who played doubles with Carol Zhao of Vaughan, Ont.
Andreescu joined the group for the finals in Glasgow, where Canada topped Italy before falling to Switzerland in group play. Switzerland went on to win the world title.
The winner of April’s clash between Canada and Belgium will advance to the finals in November.
Canada has previously struggled against Belgium in the tournament, with the European nation holding a 3-0 record in Billie Jean King Cup meetings between the two countries.
Belgium has yet to announce who they’ll send to Vancouver for this year’s matchup, but the team is likely to include world No. 37 Elise Mertens.
“They have some of the best players in the world and we know that it’s going to be a really, really tough competition,” El Tabakh said.
“But at the same time, we have some of the best players in the world. And we have some of the toughest girls on tour, mentally, and we have great fighters. And I believe that if our team is healthy and ready to go, we 100 per cent have a chance to beat them.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2023.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press