New No. 1 Canadian Françoise Abanda makes some noise

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Montreal’s Françoise Abanda has been the No. 1 female player in Canada for just two days.

But she made quite the entrance Wednesday, merely with a response to a Tweet.

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The 21-year-old, currently No. 128 in the WTA Tour rankings, wrested the largely symbolic “Canadian No. 1” crown from Genie Bouchard after the longtime queen plummeted in the rankings on Monday.

Ranked No. 118 last week, Bouchard found her ranking points from a quarterfinal effort in Madrid a year ago falling off the computer. And the result was a drop of 51 spots, down to No. 169.

As a result, Abanda – who has played little this season – along with Toronto’s Carol Zhao, leapfrogged over her and dropped Bouchard to No. 3.

Abanda’s career high ranking of No. 111 came last October.

Abanda is No. 1

Abanda acknowledged her new status in a Tweet.

 

 

 

But then, things went south in a hurry.

The principle may well be true. And the topic is relevant and discussion-worthy. But the medium, the moment and the words were ill-chosen. And as a result, the message Abanda intended to convey was lost in translation.

Broaching that topic in response to a Tweet involving Bouchard was automatically going to bring up the vast disparity in their resumés. And, indeed, most of the replies were along those lines. “Do what Bouchard has done, and then complain about lack of recognition”.

Her fellow Montrealer has a Wimbledon final, two other Grand Slam semifinals and a career-best No. 5 ranking on her resumé. Even if all that is quickly disappearing in the rear-view mirror, it all happened.

Abanda … doesn’t. 

Career a work in progress

Abanda (with Sachia Vickery) not only reached the junior girls’ singles semifinal in 2012 – at age 15 – but the doubles semi as well. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

When she was 15, Abanda was just a couple of games away from defeating 17-year-old Elina Svitolina in the 2012 Wimbledon junior girls singles semis – a couple of games away from making it an all-Canadian final against Bouchard. But a shoulder injury slowed her progress after that.

In 2014, at age 17, she blew away the field in the US Open qualifying and made the main draw, before losing in the first round to Sabine Lisicki of Germany. She has been inside the top 200 virtually every week since that effort, but still has not been able to crack the top 100.

And it took nearly three years for her to get to another Grand Slam main draw. She qualified at both the French Open and Wimbledon last summer, and won a round each time.

Her progress has been in fits and starts – nothing like the whirlwind Bouchard caused when she came on the scene.

Quick conference call

At the suggestion of Tennis Canada, Abanda got on a conference call with Canadian media Wednesday afternoon.

The intent was to explain her intentions with that Twitter reply, beginning with the fact that it was not her intention to disparage Bouchard.

“First of all, Eugenie has nothing to do with this. My problem is not Eugenie. I admire her. She has done a lot for Canadian tennis and was once No. 5 in the world. I’m not putting her down. I never have and I won’t do that today,” Abanda said, in French. 

Later, in English, she added this.

“The problem is a lot deeper than that. I think the problem is a racial problem. There is some inferiority and superiority going on. I’m speaking from my personal experience. I have lived some things in tennis growing up, and playing in Quebec. I’m just speaking the truth.”

Abanda brought up two specific situations in which she felt there was discrimination, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Abanda
Abanda makes some fans happy at Roland Garros in 2017, after fulfilling media obligations after her second-round match. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

But when asked to be more specific about the treatment she received growing up, she talked about an incident that occurred at a provincial tournament when she was in the 12-and-unders.

“I identify as a Montrealer and a Canadian. But with my black skin, I was treated as an African. The word ‘nègre’ … it’s not normal,” said Abanda, who said she was told “to go back to her country.” 

Abanda is Montreal-born. Her parents hail from the African nation of Cameroon.

“I do ignore it. But I gave you two or three examples out of hundreds. I have bad memories in my head. There have been so many instances. I understand the racial side that exists, and for me is alive and present. I’m expressing myself today to try to change that mentality,” she said. “It’s a profound problem that will take a lot of years. I’m just talking about my personal experience, what I lived through, and telling you the truth about that.”

The infamous video

One of the situations Abanda felt was a case of Tennis Canada discriminating against her was a short video produced last summer and published on Canada Day, July 1, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary.

The organization gathered well-wishes from all of its better-known players and put them together with some action footage.

“The Tennis Canada video – all the Canadian players were in that video, except me. Did I need to win two Grand Slams to be in it? No. Why was I not in that video? You don’t have to win 40 Grand Slams to be in the video from your own country. It’s not normal,” Abanda said.

“I thought it was sad … So unfair to exclude me. And it was discrimination because I was the one black player to be excluded,” she added.

Tennis Canada had already begun gathering the player footage at the French Open, as you can see above. Denis Shapovalov, who had already been eliminated in Paris during the first round of qualifying, sent a short clip from Queen’s Club a few weeks later.

Even at the time, she was peeved.

Technical difficulties

Early on in the conference call, Abanda said she did not, to this day, know the reason why she was excluded. 

Tennis Canada communications guru Valérie Tétreault, who was on the call, was asked to explain by one of the journalists.

“Françoise might have another version than mine. But our goal was not to exclude her. Far from it. There were technical issues,” she said. “We wanted her to be in it. She taped a message, but when we put it together, the quality wasn’t good enough to include it. We asked her to do it again, and she wasn’t available to re-shoot it. And that’s why.”

Their mistake, in retrospect, was not to at least include some footage of Abanda in the video, even if there was no personal message.

After that, Abanda allowed that she had heard the same reasoning from Tennis Canada, at the time.

Bouchard also was not in the video although, unlike Abanda, she does appear in some of the footage of Fed Cup. Abanda’s fellow Quebecer, Félix Auger-Aliassime (whose black father hails from Togo), was in the video.

Fed Cup accident downplayed

Abanda barely lost a game in rolling through the qualifying at the US Open in 2014. She gave Sabine Lisicki a good battle in the first round. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Abanda’s second example of the discriminatory treatment referred to her accident at Canada’s Fed Cup tie last month, against Ukraine in Montreal.

Shortly before she was to take the court for the first Saturday rubber against Lesia Tsurenko, she slipped while doing warmup exercises, fell and hit the side of her head.

Teammate Bianca Andreescu had to be rushed into action, as Abanda was in significant pain, especially around her left eye, which was swollen.

“I had a concussion, and no one in the media talked about it, everything was in the shadows,” said Abanda, who was also unable to play in the reverse singles the next day. “No one asked, ‘When is Francoise coming back to play?’ “

That was just poor reporting – although there’s no doubt that had Bouchard been the one to have the accident, the local media would have been all over it.

A tough weekend in Montreal

In fact, Tennis.Life was on hand for that warmup, and has been checking regularly for updates. The aftermath was difficult.

Abanda
Abanda quickly was surrounded by a large number of Tennis Canada personnel, after a slip and fall on the warmup court shortly before her scheduled Fed Cup match in Montreal April 21. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

On Sunday night, after Canada was victorious, Abanda was still in the team’s downtown hotel and in so much pain that she went by herself to the emergency at a downtown hospital at about 2 a.m.

She had tried to reach various Tennis Canada officials, including the team doctor. But at that hour, after a jam-packed weekend, they all had their cell phones on vibrate. And Abanda didn’t think to ring up their hotel rooms to have the room phone ring.

A few days later, her injured left eye was still slow to react to tests, and they were still not ruling out a concussion although it’s unclear if that was ever officially diagnosed. She was put on antibiotics. And she continued to have a sore neck – still does, in fact.

She had to withdraw from a planned participation in the $100,000 ITF event in Cagnes-sur-Mer last week.

Abanda returns in Slovakia

Abanda felt well enough to leave last Thursday for a similar event this week in Slovakia.

But then she was felled by bronchitis, or some sort of infection, that put her on antibiotics again. 

The on-site doctor recommended that she not play her first-round match Wednesday. But the new Canadian No. 1 took the court regardless. And she defeated former top-15 player Yanina Wickmayer 6-2, 6-4.

Her second-round match will be against young Russian Anna Blinkova. 

Why she Tweeted what she Tweeted

“Yes, I took the No. 1 spot (in Canada) a few days ago, but these are things that go back years,” she said. “Nothing was planned. I just saw something (on Twitter) that sparked something.”

Abanda
Abanda played brilliantly against freshly-minted French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko (a former junior rival) at Wimbledon last year. With a little more experience, she might well have pulled off the upset. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

There’s no doubt Abanda was victim of racial taunts as she was rising in the ranks. It happens in every tennis club, every hockey arena, every basketball court – actually, everywhere in life. People are terrible.

The combination of her beauty, her talent and the fact that Tennis Canada was underwriting all of the considerable expenses a junior player incurs made her an easy target. It’s a combination that always will bring out the jealousy from the other players and parents.

Being the one who usually wins just makes it worse.

Bouchard experienced all of that herself. It was that early indoctrination that formed the basis for her abject lack of interest in pursuing any sort of friendly relationships with other players on Tour now. 

Add in the racial component and, well, it’s a toxic mix.

Clearly, the journey and the numerous, inexcusable taunts along the way have stayed with her, as they would anyone.

Abanda speaks with Mark Masters of TSN, the national English-language Canadian sports network, after a match at the French Open last year. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Bouchard phenomenon can’t be matched

Abanda was right about one thing: no matter what she does, she will never “get the same treatment” as Bouchard.

Bouchard came on the scene with all sorts of outsized attention. And early on, she fulfilled all those expectations. 

She was attractive and highly marketable, developed a massive social media following in the blink of an eye. She had the all-powerful Nike machine behind her, and the WTA Tour went way overboard in exploiting that notoriety.

Abanda
Abanda gets some air during her second-round loss to Caroline Wozniacki at the French Open in 2017. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

There’s a certain mindset in French-speaking Quebec that makes being the Canadian No. 1 (at anything), a very big deal. It’s a sort of archaic, overarching inferiority complex that is the remnants of hundreds of years of history that we won’t get into here.

It’s a mindset that has handicapped many Quebec players in the past. At times, they seemed more focused on beating each other to the top of the Canadian “rankings” than working to take on, and defeat, the best in the world.

It’s not that being the Canadian No. 1 is not a big deal. But Abanda’s accomplishment clearly didn’t get the acclaim she felt it deserved. Perhaps that was was sparked her reaction Wednesday.

The 21-year-old has received plenty of attention within Quebec and among the French-speaking fans. Your Tennis.Life correspondent has covered her comprehensively for RDS (the French-language national sports TV network) the last few years at the Grand Slams and at various WTA tournaments. 

It’s unlikely that a player of similar ranking – No. 127 Arina Rodionova in Australia, No. 122 Dalila Jakupovic and No. 124 Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia, No. 121 Richel Hogenkamp of the Netherlands – have received nearly as much attention in their own countries.

Abanda’s countrywoman Gabriela Dabrowski, who now has two Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles, got almost no attention for those impressive feats. She didn’t even get the courtesy of a Tennis Canada media conference call after her victory, while Abanda had one Wednesday because of … a Tweet.

It’s women’s tennis. In Canada. There’s only so much oxygen in the room, and Bouchard uses up all of it at the moment.

Time to shine in Paris

Abanda is defending 220 ranking points in Paris and at Wimbledon. She qualified and reached the second round at both.

Hopefully she’ll be feeling better by next week and can build some momentum. Because if she can’t duplicate that, her ranking would drop outside the top 200.

If she can, and can break into the top 100 this summer, and make some noise at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in August, she will get plenty of attention.

And when that happens, she will be in a great position to use her platform to shed light on the unacceptable treatment she received growing up.

But she needs to pick the right moment, the right medium, and the right circumstances for her thoughts, her journey, to be properly heard and have a greater impact. Tweets are not the way.

“I encourage equality. I’d like everyone in Canada to be treated with the same respect. I don’t ask to be treated like the No. 1 in the world. I know I’m not the best.  I have a lot of work to do, with my ranking,” she said. “But people need to be valued at their true worth. We all work in Canada to reach our goals. So it’s discouraging on the morale,” she said.

“It’s a deep-rooted problem, well beyond tennis. Discrimination, racism, inferiority, superiority, We have to change the mentality. People have to talk about it.”

Tennis Canada vice-president of high performance Louis Borfiga said the organization is not guilty. “At Tennis Canada, there has never been any racial discrimination – quite the opposite,” he said. “I think Françoise has been supported in considerable fashion by our organization,” he said, in a story by Quebec wire agency QMI.

Right now, Abanda is now getting all sorts of attention from everywhere.

But it’s not the kind of attention she should want, nor will it serve her well to all of a sudden be on the tennis radar, if she can’t produce results.

In fact, staying up late Wednesday night in Slovakia to do a radio interview back home, combined with being sick and on antibiotics, won’t help her one bit when she has to take on a tough young opponent early Thursday afternoon.

In the end, be careful what you wish for.

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