Learning that the heroine of day one would not be able to play wasn’t exactly the best possible news at the start of day two for Team Canada presented by Sobeys at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals on Tuesday.

That was the situation when Francoise Abanda, winner of the opening singles match against France on Monday at the O2 Arena in Prague, had to withdraw because of an “acute blister on her left big toe.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

It meant that Carol Zhao was pressed into action against Daria Kasatkina of the Russian Tennis Federation, generally considered the team with the greatest depth at this year’s event.

The 24-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., gave a good effort and stayed with the talented Russian until 3-all in the opening set before the world No. 28 was able to gain separation and pull away for a 6-3, 6-1 victory.

“Obviously there’s the initial shock and the adjustment,” said Zhao, who learned during the morning warm-up that she would be playing. “They (Abanda and Rebecca Marino) played well yesterday and obviously (we) expected to keep the same line-up. It’s just internally, believing in yourself, thinking this is the time, the opportunity to show what you’ve got – just that mental shift.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Currently ranked No. 328 with a career high of No. 131 in 2018, Zhao hasn’t had the opportunity to play many top-ranking players, especially because she has spent time off the tour over the past few years with a persistent arm injury.

“Daria is a great player and she plays a brand of tennis I think I can learn a lot from,” said Zhao who’s trying to be more of an attacking player on court. “Going forward hopefully it will make me better.”

Marino went on for the second match with Canada still having a legitimate chance to win its Group A pool and advance to the semi-finals. If she could defeat No. 12-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in a match-up of the two nations’ No. 1 players, Canada would go into the deciding doubles match – more about that later – as the possible favourite to win that match and the tie.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

The two first sets of Marino-Pavlyuchenkova were serve dominated with a break in the fifth game, all the Russian needed to win the first, and a break in the final game of the second, all Marino required to force a third set.

Pavlyuchenkova had looked very shaky serving at 4-5 in the second. After not losing a single point on first serve in the entire set, she dropped two in losing a love game punctuated by a double fault on the first set point.

It was many moons ago but Marino, in the first round in Luxembourg in 2011 when both were aged 20, had beaten d Pavlyuchenkova 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in their only previous meeting.

So that was a reason for some optimism for Canada heading into the third set – until it was Marino’s turn to have a poor game and get broken to 15 right at the start.

Pavlyuchenkova broke again to 4-1 and, though Marino got to deuce twice in the final game, she was able to finish off a 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory.

“I just felt I didn’t have many opportunities on the return because I think we both served really good,” the Russian said about going into the final set. “So it was a matter of who’s going to get the first break. It was a goal to break as soon as possible and get a bit of that confidence.” Pavlyuchenkova can be a bit of a jokester, witness her Hallowe’en disguise at her team’s pre-event media conference, so caveat emptor about the following quote after her win on Tuesday: “The key to victory was probably me going to the locker room (after the second set) and destroying the locker room and leaving all the negative emotions out there in the locker room. Then I went back on the court and was free with my mind. I just started to play freely and fight for every point.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Marino may have lost her two matches – to No. 59-ranked Alizé Cornet on Monday to Pavlyuchenkova on Tuesday – but she showed that her competitive spirit and her skills, a big serve and penetrating ground strokes, mean she’s better than her current No. 148 ranking.

Captain Sylvain Bruneau was generous in praise of Marino and her tennis potential in an interview on Sportsnet. “Even since Montreal (the National Bank Open in August), she’s progressing,” he said. “She’s doing her homework, she has a really big game. She has a huge serve, she hits the ball heavy and hard. And she’s getting more consistent, moving better. She’s using the court better. I actually feel that next year she’s going to do some damage and her ranking is going to keep going up.”

How far could it go up? “I’d like to be able to say that she can go back to where she was at some point earlier in her career which was like top-40 (No. 38 in 2011). But let’s start with top-100 definitely – she’s super-dedicated, she works really hard. She’s the ultimate professional – every single practice she maximizes. So now she’s going to be able to play bigger tournaments and have better exposure, good chances and I think she’s going to do some damage.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Marino’s doubles match with Gabriela Dabrowski against Veronika Kudermetova, 24, and Ludmilla Samsonova, 22, was a shocker. After the Canadian duo led 3-1, the Russians went on a rampage and won a remarkable 10 games in a row on their way to sealing a 6-3, 6-1 victory in 53 minutes.

It was probably best left to Bruneau to describe what happened. He said about the Russians pair, led by the enterprising Kudermetova, “they were impeccable, they didn’t miss a ball.” That includes several that landed right on the line.

While hopes were high after Monday’s victory over France before being dashed by Tuesday’s loss to Russia, the end result for Canada, especially without No. 24-ranked Bianca Andreescu and No. 26 Leylah Fernandez, has to be considered a positive.     

It certainly is that way in the thoughts of team No. 1 Marino, playing in her eighth BJK Cup tie dating back to 2011 in Koper, Slovenia. “I think the experience as a whole has been really incredible,” she said. “Canada was a late entry to begin with so to be here as a team and to come together and play with a lot of heart was a really special thing. I think we showed yesterday and today, though we may have lost and may be eliminated from the tournament, that we belong with the best and we do play with a lot of fight and fire. I think we should really be proud of ourselves and each other.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

FOR THE RECORD: The 2021 Billie Jean King Cup Finals’ one-location with two-out-of-three match ties in one day is actually nothing new. In 1987 at the Hollyburn Country Club in West Vancouver, the then-Fed Cup featured 32 countries in a single-elimination event with two-out-three match ties played in one day. A certain 18-year-old from the Federal Republic of Germany named Steffi Graf led her nation to victory. She and Claudia Kohde-Kilsch won the decisive doubles match in the final over Chris Evert and Pam Shriver of the USA. Unfortunately for the Americans, Martina Navratilova was unavailable because she had injured her ankle playing basketball.

LOOKING AHEAD: The other Canadian team in international competition – the Davis Cup – will play in the Finals in Madrid starting Thursday, November 25. Unlike its BJK Cup team, Canada, ranked No. 6, appears to be in a favourable three-team group in the round-robin phase with No. 12-ranked Kazakhstan and No. 14 Sweden. A Finals runner-up to Spain two years ago, captain Frank Dancevic’s squad is made up of Félix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov, Vasek Pospisil, Brayden Schnur and Peter Polansky. 

Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak