Stakusic, Fernandez victorious as Canada opens BJK Cup Finals with win over Spain

SEVILLE, Spain — Captain Heidi el Tabakh rolled the dice by going with youth over experience in Canada's opening singles match against Spain at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals.

The gamble paid off Wednesday as unheralded rookie Marina Stakusic delivered an emphatic 6-3, 6-1 upset win over Rebeka Masarova for the biggest victory of her young career.

"I just tried to have great energy from the beginning and just show that I belong here," Stakusic said in an on-court interview. "I'm very happy with my performance."

Leylah Fernandez of Laval, Que., sealed the victory for Canada with a 7-6 (8), 7-6 (7) win over 50th-ranked Sara Sorribes Tormo in the other singles match.

Fernandez, the world No. 35, needed two hours 53 minutes to complete the win in a back-and-forth match. The Canadian came back from 5-2 down in the second set, then saved two set points in the tiebreak before winning on her first match point.

The best-of-three tie concluded with another win for Canada. Ottawa's Gabriela Dabrowski and Montreal's Eugenie Bouchard defeated Masarova and Sorribes Tormo 6-3, 7-5, in a doubles match that lasted 56 minutes.

Dabrowski and Bouchard converted on six of seven break points and hit 15 winners compared to eight for their opponents.

Fernandez was originally slated to partner with Dabrowski but was subbed out after her marathon match. Doubles lineup selections are allowed to be changed after the completion of the singles matches.

Stakusic, the 18-year-old native of Mississauga, Ont., took full advantage of the surprise starting assignment, her first at the women's team tennis tournament.

The world No. 258 was in full control against her 65th-ranked opponent and showed no sign of nerves on one of the sport's biggest stages. The performance hushed the partisan crowd at Estadio la Cartuja and left Masarova frustrated and searching for answers.

"I think my composure was really important for me today," Stakusic said at a media availability afterward. "I'm glad I was able to stay calm during the match."

El Tabakh went outside the box by picking Stakusic over the more experienced Bouchard and Rebecca Marino. But Stakusic showed the poise of a veteran, holding at love in the opening game and keeping the pressure on the Spaniard with heavy ground strokes and a deft touch at the net.

The Canadian opened the second set with back-to-back service breaks and refused to let Masarova gain any momentum. Down 1-4, the Spaniard had a triple-break point but Stakusic fought back for the hold before closing out the win in a tidy 69 minutes.

Stakusic, who has won three tournaments on the lower-level ITF circuit this season, called it the biggest win of her career.

Marino, the world No. 176 from Vancouver, and Bouchard, the world No. 273, cheered on their teammates from the Canadian bench. The team was missing 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., who has been nursing a back injury.

Canada was scheduled to continue Group C round-robin play Thursday against Poland. Spain and Poland were scheduled to play Friday.

Winners from each of the four three-team groups will advance to the semifinals. The championship game goes Sunday.

Stakusic, who made her pro debut as a 14-year-old in 2019, missed the first six months of this season with a knee injury. She was in form upon her return, raising trophies in Berkeley, Calif., Valladolid, Spain, and most recently at the Tevlin Challenger in Toronto.

She has an 18-4 tour record in 2023 and was named ITF world tennis tour player of the month for September.

"I didn't think I'd be here right now at all," Stakusic said. "But I think that whole injury (absence) motivated me to come back stronger than when I left."

Fernandez, who reached the U.S. Open final in 2021, had a mediocre season this year but her play picked up this fall. Her first WTA Tour title of the season came at last month's Hong Kong Open.

She entered play with an 11-3 BJK Cup record over seven career ties. She has risen to a career-high No. 17 in doubles.

Dabrowski and Fernandez teamed up for the deciding doubles win in a 3-2 victory over Belgium last April in Vancouver. The result sealed Canada's berth in this week's 12-team Finals.

Dabrowski has been in top form this season. The world No. 7 teamed with New Zealand's Erin Routliffe to win the U.S. Open women's doubles crown and they made it to the semifinals at the WTA Finals last weekend.

Canada's best showing at this event came in 1988 when it reached the semifinals before falling to Czechoslovakia.

Switzerland beat Australia in last year's final in Glasgow. Canada did not make it out of group play.

Spain will also host the Final 8 stage of the Davis Cup Finals from Nov. 21-26 in Malaga. Canada is the defending champion at the men's team event.

Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime headlines a Canadian roster that includes Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, B.C., Montreal's Gabriel Diallo and Alexis Galarneau of Laval, Que.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.

The Canadian Press