It’s the action before the action. The final talkin’ before the walkin’.
Well, not just talkin’. The Saturday before the Rogers Cup gets rolling for the women in Toronto was a busy one, including all types of face painting and bubbles for the families on site, star players getting some meaningful practice in and, of course, the qualifying tournament.
You always get the impression, by the way, that we give too short shrift to the qualies. No, the big names aren’t there, but there’s always some on the way up and some on the way down and some looking to reverse their personal fortunes. Lots of interesting stories, some sad, some inspiring. So on Saturday 48 women started hungrily looking for 12 qualifier positions in the main draw, including eight Canadians.
Let’s just say it didn’t go well for the Great White North.
Eight went up to the plate and eight went down swinging. Most disappointing were Francoise Abanda, who lost to Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur after getting to the second round of the tournament last year in Montreal. Gabriela Dabrowski tried mightily but lost in three sets to up-and-coming 18-year-old Anatasia Potapova of Russia. Carson Branstine, meanwhile, was up a break on Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania in the first set but lost her footing and never regained it, going down in three sets.
Familiar names were in the qualies, too, like Monica Puig, Heather Watson, Sachia Vickery and Andrea Petkovic. All won, with Petkovic the most noteworthy, a tough, three set triumph over Nicole Gibbs of the United States.
Gibbs is a terrific comeback story, having had surgery on her mouth after earlier this year learning after a routine dental check that she had oral cancer. She returned to the tour at the beginning of July, and now has her sights set on qualifying for the U.S. Open.
For Canada, the threesome of Bianca Andreescu, Eugenie Bouchard and Leylah Annie Fernandez will have to do as far as the main draw goes, and we know at most two will still be alive on Wednesday (barring rain delays, of course) because Andreescu and Bouchard face each other on Tuesday night under the lights at the Aviva Centre.
Both women, interestingly, will enter the fray having done some tinkering with their games, albeit for different reasons. Andreescu, as you know, has been idle since the French Open because of shoulder problems. She was determined to play in Toronto this year after missing the last two Rogers Cups because of other injuries, but said she’s had to make some changes after her hot start to the season came to an abrupt halt after Roland Garros.
“I changed my fitness regimen. More shoulder exercises, and doing them on a daily basis,” she said. “I just felt my shoulder got really weak after Indian Wells after playing so many matches.
“There were also some biomechanical issues with my serve. So I did change some bits and pieces with my serve.”
Bouchard, meanwhile, is working with a new coach, Jorge Tordero of Argentina after ending her working relationship with Michael Joyce at the end of April. Tordero is trying to convince the notoriously stubborn Bouchard that she too needs to do some different things with her service and court positioning.
“He’s changing some things, but it’s definitely the right process,” she said. “I’m also putting in a lot more hours. He’s old school.”
The two Fed Cup teammates played indoors at Newport in January, with Andreescu walking away with a 6-2, 6-0 victory.
“(Bouchard) hits the ball hard, hits it early and likes to take control of the point early,” said Andreescu. “I like to change the rhythm. I think it threw her off in that match a little bit.”
Bouchard hopes to capitalize on some rust on Andreescu’s game.
“When I’ve come back from injuries, I’ve found the toughest thing is the competition. There’s just nothing like a real match,” she said. “But I won’t approach this match any differently.”
The two women have flipped positions from years past. Now it’s Bouchard who is a secondary story, and Andreescu who is getting the bigger billing on the Rogers Cup marquee.
“Yeah, I do feel some pressure,” said Andreescu. “I’m not going to lie. I try not to get to overwhelmed by it. But there is some pressure.”
Bouchard, upbeat and buoyant despite poor results in 2019, said she’s not planning to go in and win a tournament that has always been tough for her.
“I’ll go with my usual answer. I have no expectations,” she said. “I just want to enjoy it.”
Fernandez, meanwhile, is coming off a strong finals appearance in Granby and looking thrilled to participate in her first major pro press conference on Saturday.
“I would obviously like to win the tournament,” he said, blushing.
The 16-year-old said she doesn’t view her age as a barrier in a tennis season in which 15-year-old Coco Gauff stunned Wimbledon with her impressive performances.
“Even before Coco did that I believed young players can do great things,” she said. “You know, kick the older generation out, bring the new generation in.”
A Rogers Cup wild card meant she didn’t have to go through qualifying for this tournament. Now we’ll see what she can do with it.