After being touted as the next rising star in Canadian women’s tennis, Francoise Abanda’s time might be now. The 18-year old from Montreal opened eyes last weekend representing Canada and beating 33rd-ranked Irina-Camelia Begu at the Fed Cup in her hometown. It’s a great omen for the rest of her season, as Abanda looks to make inroads on the WTA tour.
Abanda recently took the time to speak with Sportsnet’s Dave Zarum about her rise through the ranks, squaring off against legends of the game, and why at least one heated rivalry might be officially over.
Sportsnet: You’re coming off a big win last weekend in the Fed Cup against Begu. What can you carry with you from that match as the year progresses?
Francoise Abanda: Begu is the first top 30 or 40 or player I’ve beaten. That’s a big stepping stone for me going forward. This year I had said I wanted to crack the top 100, of course it being Fed Cup it doesn’t count for my WTA rankings, but it’s certainly an experience I don’t normally get playing regular tournaments. Plus being at home in Montreal, with the way the crowd gets into it, definitely for me it’s my biggest win, biggest accomplishment so far in my career.
Winning a match for Canada means a lot, too. I can remember years ago watching Fed Cup tennis, so to go out there and win a match on that stage is something I’ve always dreamed of.
SN: When you used to watch Fed Cup did it seem inevitable or was it a distant goal?
FA: Sure, I was maybe 16 and it looked like it was very far-off. I remember thinking ‘I still have a long way to go,’ so to be part of the team and winning a match at 18 years old is great. I think it will give me a confidence boost heading into upcoming tournaments.
SN: You’re making the adjustment to the WTA tour full-time. How has that been going this year?
FA: Last year was my transition year and it’s definitely been an adjustment. It can be hard getting used to playing bigger, stronger girls now. I had a lot of important experiences — playing at the U.S. Open, and playing Venus Williams in Quebec City — and it made me better. I feel I know the level now and am gaining more experience against top players so I think now it’s just a matter of playing a lot, trying to get some wins under my belt and go deeper in tournaments.
SN: I’ve always maintained that no sport relies on mental strength like singles tennis. What’s been the biggest adjustment for you so far — the physical aspect or mental?
FA: I really think you need to balance it. For example, the serve is a big part of the women’s game today so I need to work on that a lot, so the physical part is important. But the mental side is, too. Looking back at juniors, I feel like there are a lot of younger girls who are … I’ll say more immature.
Going into the WTA everybody works hard for every point and nothing is given to you, so it’s really a battle every match.
SN:You mentioned playing Venus. That must have been a thrill, going against someone who dominated women’s tennis for so long.
FA: It was a really great experience for me. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. Venus was my idol growing up, I watched her and Serena all the time and I’m thankful I got to play against her before she retired. After all, I remember watching her way back as a little kid when I first started playing tennis. At a press conference after the match she said some positive things about me, so that was cool.
But like I said, I’m going through a lot of new experiences that I’m not used to — bigger crowds, playing on TV — and that was definitely one of them. It all still feels new but I think now I’m starting to get used to it. It’s also a hard adjustment compared to juniors to go out and expect results every week.
SN: You’re one of the first players to have come through Tennis Canada’s development system, having been training out of the National Training Centre in Montreal since ’09, whereas others at some point have left Canada to train. Was it an easy decision to stay there? Or was there ever thought of going somewhere else — Florida comes to mind — like others have?
FA: Because tennis is an outdoor sport I had always considered going elsewhere to train, maybe down to Florida where there are more players. It was a hard decision though, because of the financial implications. To go overseas to somewhere like Spain or to Florida is very expensive, so that played a part.
Ultimately, Tennis Canada provided me with a lot of support and what I needed and wanted. They gave me a coach, and I was able to travel and play all the tournaments. So I felt less pressure for me and for my parents. We definitely considered all of our options, and you’re right that there aren’t a lot of players so far who have developed their game solely out of Montreal, but hopefully there will be more in the future.
SN:Was tennis always your sport?
FA: My older sister, Elisabeth, started before me. She always liked tennis and we met Jean-Claude Lemiere who was a friend of the family and he started to teach her. I was just like a copy-cat, wanting to copy my sister. Whatever she was into I wanted to do, and it happened to be tennis, so I just followed her path.
But before that we did speed skating — I was maybe five years old — and that was the very first sport I did. And then we just focused on tennis after.
SN: Do you have a sibling tennis rivalry with Elisabeth?
FA: [Laughs] We used to.
SN:What happened? It stopped being fun because you kept beating her?
FA: Well, I mean, we have three years difference so when we were younger her being, say, 13 and me being 10 … she was beating me when we were kids. we haven’t played a match in the last four years, really. If we played I’m sure I’d come out with a win [laughs]. But she‘s a good player. She’s plays in college right now (Barry College in Miami, Fla.) and she’s enjoying it.
SN:A lot of tennis players are very superstitious. Can that be said about you?
FA: I don’t have routines or anything where I do the same thing every time. But I definitely make sure I put the time in. I’ll train two hours in the morning and then another hour and a half or two hours in the afternoon working on fitness.
I was always on the court when I was younger. Always. I was able to have a lot of friends my age playing tennis, too, so it’s always been a lot of fun for me. Now it’s more of a career, but growing up it was really something I enjoyed for fun.
SN:What’s the one aspect of your game you want to improve the most this year?
FA: You have to work on everything, especially coming from the junior ranks and making the transition I’m trying to make. So there’s not really one thing in particular but like I said earlier, the serve is a big shot to have in women’s tennis. It’s really important, and my coaches used to tell me that all the time. But now that I’ve experienced it first-hand I see that’s really accurate. So I know my serve can be a weapon and it’s something I can work to really improve to help me in my matches.
SN:So you’re now an ambassador for the National Bank. Not everyone gets to say they’re an ambassador you know.
FA: Yeah, definitely!
SN: So what can you tell me about this “On the Ball” program you’re involved with?
FA: It’s a program for young students at school where National Bank is sending boxes of recycled tennis balls to schools all over Quebec and Ontario to put on the bottom of chairs. The idea is that it helps reduce the noise the chairs make from kids getting up and down. It can be very distracting for kids. I remember being in school — I did my primary school in Quebec — when all the kids would get up at once the noise was really loud. So hopefully this helps to make a better learning environment. And for me to be an ambassador is really great. I’m really pleased and thankful for that.
For more info on Francoise and On The Ball click here: http://www.youth.nationalbank.ca/on-the-ball-program