A tennis ball, sweetly struck, makes a sound pleasing even to neophyte fans’ ears.
In the second service game of the opening match on the Rogers Cup evening program last night in Montreal, Canadian tennis phenom Françoise Abanda uncorked a vicious backhand return that made the tell-tale thwack of a clean winner.
The “oohs” from the crowd started before the ball even kissed the line. Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia – the 12th-ranked women’s player in the world – barely bothered to wave at it.
Big-time tennis being what it is, the 25-year-old Cibulkova swiftly deployed her veteran guile and killer backhand to win the game, take the set and eventually dispatch the home-crowd favourite 6-1, 3-6, 6-0.
But that one shot, and the five points that surrounded it – where Abanda, 17, punished the 2014 Australian Open finalist with a series of heavy-as-ore ground-strokes – provided the first tantalizing glimpse of a considerable talent who some at Tennis Canada feel could carry the Montreal native to Eugenie Bouchard-like heights.
There were more to come.
In the second set, Abanda broke Cibulkova’s serve in the first game and held in the next game to take a 2-0 lead; she would build a 3-1 lead.
The key moment of the set came with Cibulkova facing a break point on her second serve – both players wobbled repeatedly on their service game – and Abanda stepped up to the net to exchange volleys, the last of which she angled for a forehand winner.
It was accompanied by a fist pump and roar; she would win the set going away, 6-3.
Inconsistency is a hallmark of youth when it comes to pro sports, and in the decisive third frame, Cibulkova seized control early and trotted to victory.
It was Abanda’s misfortune that her Rogers Cup debut – at centre court, before her friends and family – came against such a seasoned and skilful opponent, the highest-ranked player she has ever faced.
But that’s all part of learning how to hang with the best in the world.
“I don’t often get the chance to play against top-10 players,” she said afterward, adding later that “it’s exciting to know I can compete against a top-10 player.”
As to what she needs to improve, Abanda mentioned her fitness – “I ran out of gas in the third set” – and said the experience of Monday’s match would be a huge benefit. “The crowd, playing on TV, it’s not something I’m really used to. … It was really new for me tonight,” she said.
Abanda has climbed more than 350 spots in the world rankings since last December (she entered this week’s event ranked 209th), and captured her first professional singles title – at a $25,000 International Tennis Federation event in Florida – a couple of weeks before her 17th birthday.
She’s arguably a better player than Bouchard was at the same age, although Bouchard won two ITF titles the year she turned 17.
Abanda’s progress is made more remarkable by the fact it stalled almost completely in 2013 because of a nasty shoulder injury that kept her out of action for most of the year.
It’s been a tough road back to fitness, and if the hard-hitting teenager – who is nearly six feet tall – can develop a more effective serve, she has the technical skills and athleticism to take a serious run at joining the world elite.