A labour of love

JOHN SHORT -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

Two friendly teens from Quebec have lifted Canada to a higher rung on the ladder of world women's tennis.

Aleksandra Wozniak of Montreal deflated Gisela Dulko and Stephanie Dubois of Laval defeated Clarissa Fernandez in singles at the Royal Glenora Club yesterday to give this nation a berth in World Group II beside Israel, Australia, Slovakia, Croatia, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria.

Most impressive was Wozniak's performance. She overcame a shaky start and survived a thrilling exchange of volleys for set point in a tie-break to win 7-6 (8-6) in the first set, then showed great confidence while cruising 6-3 in the second.

Dubois had a much easier task. She jumped to a quick lead against Clarissa Fernandez and registered a 6-2, 6-4 triumph.

Dulko, the best-ranked player here at No. 33, rebounded with partner Mariana Diaz-Oliva for a meaningless 7-5, 6-4 doubles victory over Marie-Eve Pelletier of Repentigny, Que., and Sharon Fichman of Toronto.

Oliva, who lost to Wozniak on opening day, was pencilled in to face Dubois with the Argentines needing a victory in the fourth singles match of the weekend. Only 10 minutes before the match was to start, Fernandez, a lanky lefty with a solid record on clay but few real credentials on hard courts, was entered in her place.

NO EXPLANATION

Dubois, a mature 19, was one of many with no explanation for the move.

"I knew how to play her," she said. "I practised with her only a month ago and I played her (in competition) last year. I beat her then."

The Canadian has never faced Diaz-Oliva. "I thought she played some good points (on opening day). I was expecting to play her."

Dubois found it easy to deflect credit for the team's victory to Wozniak, who struggled to hold serve in the early stages but was rarely threatened in the second set.

"Alex played unbelievable.

"After she won the first match, I knew I had to play hard, and I did."

Fernandez was sharp only once in awhile. She was broken by Dubois in her first service game of the second set, but broke back at love to tie the score 3-3. But Dubois returned the favour when she got a break on a net cord one game later.

She had no real problem from then on.

"It's really exciting for us to be in the World Group," Dubois grinned, predicting that every member of the young Canadian team would improve quickly while playing tougher team competition.

She explained her improvement from the opening loss to Dulko almost casually: "I played better."

RANKED NO. 15

World Group II includes half of the world's top 16 teams. Canada is ranked 15th, but has not been in a World Group since 1994.

The key in Dulko's loss was a costly double fault on what would have, could have, should have been the final point of the opening set.

When the Argentine star's second serve hit the net, the rise in Wozniak's confidence was immediate. She won the first five points of the tie-break, but, with a win in sight, committed one of her common errors.

"I started to think too much," she grinned. The lapse prompted her to make five consecutive unforced errors - but, fortunately, she rallied in time to record the important victory - "so far, this is my biggest."

The youngster blamed nerves for trouble both at the start and during the tie-break. When she finally hammered the winning volley, "I thought my heart would stop."

Dulko was gracious in defeat: "I was not at my best, but she played a good match."

Double faults were a problem for her all day. One came at a key moment when Wozniak broke serve in the second set.

Dulko refused to use occasional gusts of wind on a steamy day as an excuse for her problems while serving.

"The toss was bad yesterday," she conceded. "Today, my head ..."


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