A mild day of on-again-off-again rain wasn’t enough to delay the start of the 2017 Rogers Cup presented by National Bank in Toronto, which kicked into high gear with top seeds Magdalena Rybarikova and Irina-Camelia Begu, and Canadians Gabriela Dabrowski, Katherine Sebov and Carol Zhao leading the jam-packed qualifying draw—a field strong enough to be its own international tournament. With 24 qualifying matches being played across six courts, there was no shortage of action to be seen on the first day of the 125th edition of the Rogers Cup.
Zhao the Only One of Eight Canadians to Advance on Day One
It was far from an easy day for the Canadians, who went 1-7 on the day with Richmond Hill’s Carol Zhao becoming the only one among a crop full of young talent to advance to the final round of qualifying.
In her first tour-level match of the year, Zhao produced one of her best performances of the season on a windy Saturday afternoon to stun 23rd-seeded Paraguayan Veronica Cepede Royg, 7-6(5), 2-6, 6-1. After a topsy-turvy opening set that eventually went to the world number 414, Cepede Royg’s experience was beginning to prove telling as she capitalized on a few loose games from the 22-year-old Canadian to draw level at a-set-apiece before Zhao used the break between sets to regroup and never really look back from there once she took charge, running away with the decider to cap off a mightily impressive victory.
Zhao’s victory would be the only thing the Canadian crowd could cheer about on day one as the five other matches featuring Canadians all went against the home favourites, making it a tough day for the host nation.
Juniors Isabelle Boulais and Layne Sleeth were last-minute additions to the draw after a couple of withdrawals on Friday evening, but they were unable to pose much of a threat, going down to Christina McHale and Kirsten Flipkens respectively in their first-round matches.
Elsewhere, Toronto-born Canadian wild card Katherine Sebov found herself a double break up in both the first and second sets before she saw her leads vanish at the hands of eighth-seeded Ashleigh Barty. Remarkably, it was when she was down 0-4 in the opening set and down 0-3 in the second when Barty started to play her best tennis, reeling off six games in a row in both situations to dash the hopes of the young Canadian and ultimately secure a far-from-straightforward 6-4, 6-3 victory.
Former quarterfinalist Aleksandra Wozniak entered the weekend red hot, having won the Challenger Banque Nationale de Gatineau title just two weeks ago, but she met her match in 2013 finalist and seventh seed Sorana Cirstea, who dispatched the Montrealer, 6-4, 6-1. Canada’s first Grand Slam (mixed doubles) champion, Gabriela Dabrowski, saw her qualifying hopes end in a similar way as she went down to 14th seed Varvara Lepchenko, 6-3, 6-3—the same scoreline that also ended the hopes of rising Canadian star Charlotte Robillard-Millette at the hands of the 18th-seeded Risa Ozaki.
In the only other match that featured a Canadian, 16-year-old Carson Branstine made a name for herself by taking a set off fifth seed Donna Vekic before the Croat eventually found her groove and used her experience to dash the hopes of the young Canadian, five years her junior, with a hard-fought—and very entertaining—5-7, 6-2, 6-3 victory.
Rybarikova Survives Three-Set Thriller with Nara; Begu, Osaka Advance in Straights
In what arguably turned out to be the match of the day, top seed Magdalena Rybarikova appeared to have things all wrapped up, a set and 5-3 to the good, when a late onslaught from Japan’s Kurumi Nara forced her to take the scenic route; the Japanese number five reeling off four games in a row to force a decider. To her credit, Rybarikova did regroup swiftly by racing out to a 5-2 lead, this time giving herself a two-break cushion—if she needed it—to serve out the match. But sure enough, Nara would just refuse to go down quietly as the world number 98 gave the Slovak a much-dreaded case of déjà-vu, reeling off four games in a row before Rybarikova finally held her nerve to force a final-set tiebreak. After an exchange of mini-breaks, neither player seemed to be willing to give the other an inch until Nara finally cracked, missing long on Rybarikova’s second match point to secure the Slovak a dramatic 6-2, 5-7, 7-6(6) victory.
In less dramatic fashion, second and third seeds Irina-Camelia Begu and Naomi Osaka both booked their place in the final round of qualifying with comfortable straight-set victories: Begu defeated Japan’s Miyu Kato, 6-3, 6-4, in front of a strong Romanian contingent, while Osaka got the better of former NCAA champion Jamie Loeb, 6-3, 6-3.
Elsewhere, 17th seed Heather Watson recovered from a nightmarish opening set to see off tenacious Slovak Jana Cepelova, 1-6, 7-6(0), 7-6(6), coming from a break down in the decider to eventually outduel the world number 92 in a breaker.
In an all-Japanese battle on Court 5, it was the higher-ranked 20th-seeded Misaki Doi who came out on top, grinding out a grueling 7-6(4), 7-6(4) victory over Eri Hozumi, who came back from the brink multiple times in both sets before eventually falling to her compatriot.
Other winners on Saturday included 11th-seeded German Tatjana Maria, 17th-seeded Italian Camila Giorgi and unseeded players Lizette Cabrera, Barbora Krejcikova and Mariana Duque-Mariño—the last three of which were forced to grit out tough three-set matches against higher-ranked players to put themselves within one match of securing a spot in the 64-player main draw.