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Canada on top of team tennis mountain after beating Italy to win Billie Jean King Cup

Canada Tennis Billy Jean King Cup Leylah Fernandez, Marina Stakusic - The Canadian Press

When Michael Downey was settling into his new job as Tennis Canada chief executive officer in the mid-2000s, he helped guide a leadership group that set sky-high goals for the program.

A small fish on the sport's international scene at the time, the federation ambitiously set targets for Canadian players to win Grand Slam singles titles in each gender and capture both of the major team championships.

Three out of four ain't bad.

The Canadian women's team added to the trophy case over the weekend by winning the country's first-ever Billie Jean King Cup crown. The victory came less than a year after the men's team won the Davis Cup and four years after Bianca Andreescu raised the U.S. Open trophy.

"In a cycle of 15 years, we've got three of the four and the Canadian players are capable of doing it more than once," Downey said Monday from Montreal. "They're not flukes and that's pretty special."

Last week in Spain, Leylah Fernandez of Laval, Que., was a force for a Canadian team that swept its way to the weekend playoffs before topping Italy 2-0 in the final.

Marina Stakusic of Mississauga, Ont., delivered upset singles wins and Ottawa's Gaby Dabrowski was an anchor in doubles. Montreal native Eugenie Bouchard and Vancouver's Rebecca Marino rounded out a roster that was captained by Heidi el Tabakh.

"I think this was a phenomenal team effort," Downey said. "I think there was a bonding effort there that was amazing. Rebecca knowing that Marina was ready to go. Gaby ready to play (doubles) with Genie to save Leylah, and Leylah ready to just carry it.

"I think they're going to redefine what (makes) a good team and they're going to have future success."

The 36th-ranked Fernandez won all five of her matches while the 261st-ranked Stakusic — a virtual unknown entering the 12-team Finals — displayed a veteran's poise despite being a few weeks shy of her 19th birthday.

"What really helped there is she surprised the competition," said Downey, who's set to retire next month. "There's no book on Marina and she played lights out."

Stakusic beat three top-100 opponents — including 42nd-ranked Martina Trevisan in the final — and helped take the pressure off the doubles players in group play.

With Andreescu nursing a back injury, Bouchard and Marino were the early favourites to get the assignments in singles play. But el Tabakh went outside the box by selecting Stakusic, who has excelled on the ITF circuit but has never played a WTA Tour main draw match.

"I think it's fair to say that a champion (was) born this week," el Tabakh told reporters in Spain. "She exceeded everyone's expectations."

Canada made its debut at the annual tournament — previously known as the Federation Cup — in 1963. The country's best previous result was a semifinal appearance in 1988.

Marino was with the squad during some of the lean years when Canada was playing in lower-level tiers.

Her tournament debut came in a 3-2 loss at Serbia in February 2011, a year that would see the Canadians demoted from the World Group's second level to the regional zone group.

"From my first one, losing that tie to suddenly being world champions, it's like a huge turnaround over the course of the last 12 years," Marino said at the post-game media availability. "I'm really proud of the women who are sitting beside me, the work they have put in to get us here. It's been such an effort."

Canada booked its ticket in this year's Finals last April with a 3-2 win over Belgium in Vancouver. Once in Seville, the indoor hardcourts suited the sixth-ranked Canadians' style and the squad delivered in the big moments.

"I think it starts with just getting some depth," Downey said. "There's no doubt that Bianca, Leylah, Gaby, they're kind of the foundation of this team. They've put in the hard time and they've been very loyal to playing for their country.

"We just found a way to always get through but we never got over the top. I think in this one, it was like everything coming together."

Tennis Canada's decision nearly two decades ago to create a national tennis centre, bring in top coaches and form regional pipelines has paid off with results.

Bouchard reached the Wimbledon final in 2014 and Milos Raonic made it to the men's final two years later. The younger generation was watching.

Andreescu and Fernandez — a 2021 U.S. Open finalist — would later emerge on the women's scene. Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont., and Montreal's Felix Auger-Aliassime — the singles anchors for Canada's Davis Cup win last year — would become stars on the ATP Tour.

"How fast you get success is really hard to predict," Downey said. "But I do think success begets success."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2023.

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