National Bank Open a celebration of Canadian tennis, past and present

TORONTO — With anticipation reaching fever pitch following an hour-plus rain delay, an incandescent pink and orange cloud hovers over Sobeys Stadium ahead of Leylah Annie Fernandez’s opening match at the National Bank Open. There are matching pink and orange hues adorned through the crowd, particularly in Fernandez’s box, which she looks to with increased frequency in what turns out to be a 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-3 thriller against Australian qualifier Storm Sanders, spanning two hours and forty minutes.

After a three-year hiatus from Toronto, the women’s edition of the National Bank Open is a celebration of Canadian tennis writ large, both past and present, and Fernandez is thrilled to indulge an extremely partisan crowd, launching autographed balls into selected sections post-match with fans moshing to get their hands on a coveted souvenir.

“The crowd did wonders for me. I was feeling their emotions. I was feeling their cheers. The energy that they were able to give me from the very first point all the way to the last, it was phenomenal,” Fernandez told reporters in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

“I was just super happy to feel that emotion again, feel that electricity going through my body once again. And just to leave the court with a win and knowing that the fans, the crowd helped me makes it even better.”

Entering the National Bank Open as the tournament’s No. 13 seed, Fernandez is the most likely Canadian to win this year’s women’s singles competition, with 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu another candidate after winning her opening match Tuesday evening. It would be a stretch to suggest the results are immaterial — the jovial mood here would almost certainly be dampened in losing efforts — yet there is a festival-like atmosphere cultivated, providing a window in the optimism shared about the future of tennis in Canada.

Leylah Fernandez celebrates defeating Storm Sanders of Australia in her first round match of the National Bank Open. (Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images)
Leylah Fernandez celebrates defeating Storm Sanders of Australia in her first round match of the National Bank Open. (Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images)

For those uninitiated with the inner workings of Toronto’s geographical landscape, Sobeys Stadium is a one-hour commute northwest of the downtown core, and advertisements for the National Bank Open are plastered all over the city’s subway stations. Upon exiting at Pioneer Village station, there are numerous signs directing fans toward the venues, which by itself is somewhat unremarkable, but there’s a direct emphasis on lionizing the tournament’s rich history and Canadian success stories that are embedded within.

Resting on an ill-manicured part of the York University lawn, one sign reads: “4 MORE MINUTES TO TENNIS. OUR VERY OWN GABRIELA DABROWSKI IS THE DOUBLE DEFENDING CHAMPION OF THE NATIONAL BANK OPEN.”

Another placard, this one sitting on a greener part of the adjacent soccer field informs us we’re two minutes away from the action, along with: “BIANCA ANDREESCU (2019) AND FAYE URBAN (1969) ARE THE ONLY CANADIANS TO WIN THE SINGLES TITLE AT THE CANADIAN OPEN.” There’s a clear emphasis on recognizing Canadian tennis history and how it operates as a bridge into an unparalleled, bright future.

Embarking upon a journey through the past, there are large-scale photos hanging from the facade of the stadium, including previous champions Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Simona Halep and Serena Williams, along with current superstars such as Iga Swiatek, the current World No. 1 who rattled off 37 consecutive victories this season, and reigning National Bank Open champion Camila Giorgi, who dispatched Emma Radacanu with shocking ease in Round 1.

With some time to kill before Tuesday’s opening match begins, featuring unseeded Canadian Rebecca Marino against 19-year-old upstart Zheng Qinwen, I take it upon myself to survey the rest of the pavilion, propelled by a veritable army of several hundred dedicated volunteers. There are several food vendors (the choice is mainly limited to stadium-priced Pizzaville and glizzies inside the main court), a mini-tennis exhibit, a smash cage — the tennis equivalent of a batting cage — and a concert from country band Rob Watts Duo scheduled for the evening.

Before returning to my seats in the designated media area for Marino’s match, I visited a booth that had caught my eye the previous night, and is perhaps emblematic of the holistic approach to embracing Canadian life.

A pink sign and two volunteers point to the Positive Court Pledge by Tennis Canada, an extension of an actionable commitment titled Mental Timeout, a series of initiatives designed to recognize the importance of mental health. There are four tenets to the pledge, among them: I pledge to make tennis safer and healthier for everyone, and to promote mental wellbeing and resilience.

Recognizing the importance of preserving one’s mental health has been an interwoven component of this year’s tournament. Andreescu returned to action this season after a mental health hiatus and spent a large portion of her Media Day availability speaking about the benefits of taking some rest.

Marino dazzles before luck runs out

Trailing 15-40 during the fifth game of a contentious third set against Zheng, the crowd rose in support of Marino, much to the annoyance of the chair official. Marino, whose blistering serve stands out among the rest of the competition, fights back and wins her best two points of the match, with crushing winners from the baseline that Zheng can’t contend with. The chair official isn’t amused and asks the crowd to pipe down again. Three plays later, Marino walks away tied at three games apiece.

Marino’s luck runs out eventually, however. Although her serve is keeping Zheng off-balance and forcing plays from the baseline, she makes a number of unforced errors in the final three games of the match, and ends up losing 6-3, 6-7(5), 4-6, but it’s clear the roused Canadian audience made an impression on the Vancouver native.

“Yeah, the crowd was great today," Marino told me. "It's tough when it's sort of dreary, cloudy. It tried to drizzle at some points. So I think we had a good daytime crowd. Definitely a nighttime match is like the big show stopper. But we had a good crowd today.

“I think they really supported me. But they were also quite supportive of my opponent. And I thought that was like, very Canadian and polite. But a fantastic crowd. And it's of course always lovely to play in (my) home country. Toronto's kind of like my home, my birthplace. So it's nice to be back here, always.”

Fernandez sisters put on a show

Fernandez is back for the second consecutive evening, this time paired up with her sister, Bianca, for a doubles match against Sara Sorribes Tormo and Kirsten Flipkens. As the day session crowd is swapped out for the night cohort, the Grandstand Court is overflowing. Naomi Osaka’s back injury has rendered the centre court at Sobeys Stadium vacant for over two hours, so it’s time to gravitate towards the smaller courts.

You have to fight for seats but even if you can’t see the points, you can hear the unmistakable roar of the crowd. All is well, and surely enough, the Fernandez sisters emerged with a 6-4, 6-1 victory.

We’re only a few days into the event but it seems apparent this may be the tournament that propels Fernandez to superstardom, with Andreescu ascending as well.

Andreescu grinds through theatrical match

Andreescu arrived in 2019 as a relatively unknown quantity before dispatching Williams in the National Bank Open, then defeating the greatest player of all-time once again at the US Open, propelling her to a new echelon of stardom. Three years later, Andreescu is the undisputed people’s champion in Toronto, with a raucous crowd of over 9,000 on hand to see her face off against No. 11 Daria Kasatkina.

The evening session crowd explodes after the first game — Kasatkina wins the first three points of the match before Andreescu rallies from 40-0, then proceeds to break her opponent on a 13-shot rally, followed by an eight-shot rally, to go up 1-0.

The first set certainly exceeds the hype and then some, but it graduates into the theater of the absurd with four consecutive breaks of serve. One of the boxes that hovers over the press section is seemingly incapable of being quiet between and during points. Andreescu hesitates on her serve, taking her time to put the ball in play. The chair umpire interjects: “Ladies and gentlemen, we appreciate your support, but please remain quiet until the end of the point.”

Wishful thinking.

“Yeah, right!” yells one unruly fan, much to the chagrin of the majority of the crowd. It’s not the first or the last time the partisan audience will eventually reveal that there’s perhaps something as being too supportive, overriding the etiquette rules that are pasted throughout the concourse. In any event, Kasatkina breaks Andreescu, Andreescu breaks Kasatkina, before the Mississauga, Ont., native finally wins on her service game to go up 4-2.

And here come the “Let’s go Bianca!” chants — perhaps the refrain that will define this year’s tournament. But after what appeared to be smooth sailing for Andreescu, we fell back into a somewhat familiar pattern. Kasatkina and Andreescu both win their next service games, Kasatkina wins on service again, trailing 5-4, then breaks Andreescu to tie the set up at five apiece. You can feel the anxiety of the crowd rising like the tide.

Andreescu is fighting through the match and breaks Kasatkina again after the 25-year-old sprays the ball into the doubles sideline. History has a fascinating way of repeating itself, and in the next game, it is Andreescu who sends it wide into the doubles sideline, sending the first set into a tiebreak.

By its very nature, a tiebreak offers no margin for error and this is where Kasatkina begins to capitulate. Leading the tiebreak 3-1, Kasatkina double faults and the Andreescu supporters erupted once again into the Let’s Go Bianca chants. It doesn’t pay off initially — Andreescu sends what would’ve been a clear forehand winner wayward and screams in frustration. The pro-Andreescu audience remains undeterred, continuing to offer support and it pays dividends. Andreescu regroups, wins the next point, and a fan yells “We The North, baby!” perhaps in homage to her known diehard support of the Toronto Raptors.

It pays off. Andreescu wins the next four points, capitalizing on set point No. 2 to receive her second standing ovation of the night. The second set is far less theatrical, save for the antics of the suite box bros, perhaps a few beers too many into the match. No matter. Kasatkina cannot keep up with the precision of Andreescu’s crushing forehand winners, while the Canadian is playing much better. After two hours and twenty-nine minutes of action, Andreescu closes it out on her third match point, and receives a hero’s welcome.

Bianca wants to play fearlessly

In the post-match interview with Sportsnet’s Carly Agro, Andreescu reveals she hadn’t been feeling well, speculating that she may have eaten too much before the match, then told reporters afterwards that it may have been the result of the pressure leading up to the tournament. She also notes that she wants to keep the same 2019 energy.

There’s a difference between 2019 and 2022. The crowd is expressly here to see her, with due respect to the rest of the players on the slate. Andreescu pays homage once again to the fans.

“Yeah, the crowd was so crazy. I wish I was able to enjoy it just a little bit more considering what I was going through. If it wasn't for them, I don't think I would've pulled through because they really gave me a lot of positive energy,” Andreescu tells me.

“When I said I'm bringing 2019 energy back, it's more of that fearless, no pressure, just going for it, and I think I did that tonight, so let's keep it going!”

Andreescu is an inextricable link to the tournament’s past and its future, all the while handling the pressure of being the marquee Canadian star on the billing, with Fernandez pushing for that distinction during an excellent 2022 campaign. The opening days of the National Bank Open have been a celebration of Canadian tennis, past and present, and that’s something we can all be grateful for.

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