New No. 1 Canadian Françoise Abanda makes some noise

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.

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.

Will she, or won’t she? A shaky question

If there is one moment in Genie Bouchard’s tumultuous career that, all on its own, turned a lot of tennis fans against her, it was the handshake.

Rather, the non-handshake. And then, the non-handshake sequel.

So as the 24-year-old from Montreal returns home for Fed Cup this weekend, in the lineup for the first time in three years, the exercise in watching grass grow that is the Friday draw ceremony – especially the part where the prospective opponents shake and smile for photos – will become a flash point.

You wouldn’t want her to swung and miss for strike three.

Currently ranked No. 117, Bouchard has enough challenges this weekend.

She will try to kickstart a tough season and post one, ideally two, victories against Ukraine for herself and for her country.

Strike one: 2014 vs. Slovakia

If Canada can’t take the tie, it would have to go back down to the zonal competition in 2019.

And on the other side, despite the absence of Elina Svitolina, there are two very solid, experienced players in Kateryna Bondarenko and Lesia Tsurenko to try to stop them.

The Genie Show

The draw ceremony takes place Friday, at noon, at a downtown Montreal hotel. And the handshake moment likely won’t be the only awkward part of the event.

Strike two: 2015 vs. Romania

Bouchard hasn’t really met the local Montreal media since the Rogers Cup in the summer of 2016. It’s been an eventful 20 months.

And there were no opportunities through the week, or at least since Bouchard arrived from California on Wednesday.

New Fed Cup guidelines have removed the obligation of all team members to attend at least one pre-draw press conference during the week. 

If the concept was to somehow “lessen the load” in a bid to encourage the top players to play more often, as was the case with the men, it’s a double-edged sword. (Plus, we’ll note that, unlike the men in Davis Cup, the women haven’t eliminated the rubber-chicken banquet on the Thursday night).

Fed Cup is such an afterthought here during the NHL hockey playoffs that the national sports network that owns the television rights isn’t even broadcasting it on television, only online. 

So getting Bouchard out there in the media would definitely give the event a boost. But with a modest, 1,500 seat stadium setup, Tennis Canada has hedged its bets.

And so there has been no opportunity to get all the Bouchard “business” out of the way before the serious stuff of playing tennis begins.

Well, that’s not quite true. A group of young children were invited in for a “press conference” with her. Which is just making fun, really.

Fed Cup captain Sylvain Bruneau stood in for Bouchard on Wednesday, talking about Bouchard.

All within the rules

No one, including Tennis Canada or Bouchard, is breaking any rules (there’s a fine of up to $10,000 if they do). 

But what’s going to happen on Friday if past history is any indication is that in the only Bouchard media opportunity, the other three players will also be sitting up on the stage. And nearly every question will be directed to Bouchard.

And it will be awkward for everyone: her teammates, and the media.

Here’s what happened four years ago, for the Feb. 2014 tie against Serbia.

Along with that, all eyes will turn towards the Fed Cup draw board, and the official photos.

Flash back to April, 2014 and exactly a year later in April, 2015 (pardon the quality of the video; it was early days).

So the big question will be answered on Friday: will she, or won’t she?

Bruneau did tell Tennis.Life Wednesday that he likely would bring it up with her.

Will it be third-time lucky?

One thing’s for sure. Friday’s draw ceremony will have a little more spice than these things typically do.

Flashback – Ostapenko, 2014 French Open

ROLAND GARROS – The thing about junior tennis is that even when you’re watching it attentively, you don’t always know what you’re seeing.

With rare exceptions, only hindsight can tell you that.

Players who impress at a young age often don’t pan out in the pros. Players who don’t do a whole lot in the juniors grow up, fill out and do great things.

So you watch. Do they have the makings of a pro game? Or do they have a game that’s been successful in the juniors and left alone, to their long-term detriment, precisely because of that success. 

Often – especially on the boys’ side, the game doesn’t transition. And by the time the players, coaches and federations figure that out, it’s often too late to make the big changes required.

Ostapenko, out in the first round

Which brings us to the French Open, three years ago, and a match between a pair of 1997s (i.e., 17 years old, or about to be) in the first round of the junior event.

Ostapenko
Françoise Abanda hadn’t played the juniors for awhile when she showed up at the 2014 French. She dispatched Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Françoise Abanda had been a hotshot junior. At 15, two years before, she’d been a couple of games away from making the junior Wimbledon final an all-Canadian affair with the three-years-older Genie Bouchard.

She ended up beaten by Elina Svitolina, who was 2 1/2 years older and had already won the junior French Open at age 15.

Fast forward to 2014, and Abanda was basically playing pro events and also had been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury. She had played just one junior tournament in the previous year and a half.

Abanda was entered in the French Open in the hope that maybe she could snag a junior Slam title before she was done. And as the draw worked out, she faced a tough opponent in Ostapenko in the first round.

The Canadian was seeded No. 10. Ostapenko was unseeded.

They had played once before, in Montreal, when both were 15. Abanda had pulled through that one 1-6, 6-1, 6-1.

Ostapenko was a few weeks away from winning the Roehampton-Wimbledon junior double. She was still playing a lot of junior tournaments then. But the Latvian also had just spent five weeks playing a series of $10,000 ITF pro events in Santa Margherita Di Pula, Italy.

She won three of them, and went 20-2 during that stretch.

She might have been a bit weary.

Abanda won the match 7-6 (5), 6-4. At the time, there didn’t seem to be anything unduly remarkable about Ostapenko. 

I remember thinking I was not a big fan of the outfit, which a lot of the Nike juniors were wearing that year. And her eyesight wasn’t that great in terms of some of the ball marks she picked out for the umpire to look at (that hasn’t changed).

But that was about it.

At the end of 2014, the top 1997s in the WTA Tour rankings were as follows:

Belinda Bencic (No. 32)
Ana Konjuh (No. 93)
Françoise Abanda (No. 202)
Naomi Osaka (No. 260)
Jelena Ostapenko (No. 271)

All but Abanda, who qualified for the French Open main draw this year in her first tournament on the pro side, have made it to the top 50.

Ostapenko

Bencic has had the highest ranking of them all, peaking at No. 7 in February, 2016. But she’s out indefinitely after a series of injuries.

And yet, it was Ostapenko who snuck up on everyone and won the 2017 French Open.

The moral of the story might be this: don’t give into the hype. But don’t overlook anyone.

Because you never know.