High hopes for Canadians at Wimbledon

Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak has long believed she has what it takes to be a top-10 player in women’s tennis.

Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak is hoping for a major breakthrough at Wimbledon.

Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak is hoping for a major breakthrough at Wimbledon.

Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak has long believed she has what it takes to be a top-10 player in women’s tennis.

With a strong showing at the year’s third major, she could be well on her way.

The Blainville, Que., native leads a strong Canadian contingent into Wimbledon, which begins today. She’s joined by Stephanie Dubois of Laval, Que., Frank Dancevic of Niagara Falls, Ont. — Canada’s lone entry in the men’s draw — and Toronto’s Daniel Nestor who, along with Serbian partner Nenad Zimonjic, will be seeded second in London.

Wozniak, 21, enters the women’s singles draw as the 23rd seed, but is coming off a semifinal showing at a tuneup event in Eastbourne, England that included wins over French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and defending Wimbledon semifinalist Jie Zheng. Reaching the quarter-finals or better at Wimbledon could vault her into the top-15 — guaranteeing her a favourable seed in future tournaments.

With her confidence at an all-time high, Wozniak believes she has a solid Wimbledon run in her.

“I think I’ve progressed a lot in the last year,” said Wozniak, who drew Italy’s Francesca Schiavone as her first-round opponent. “I’m getting more comfortable, and I belong with the best players.”

Based on her play the last month, it would be difficult to argue.

Following an inspired run to the round of 16 at the French Open — where she fell to world No. 2 Serena Williams — Wozniak was a force in Eastbourne, trouncing Kuznetsova 6-0, 6-3 and following with an impressive straight-sets win over Zheng, a three-time tournament winner.

Wozniak steamrolled qualifier Vera Dushevina 6-1, 6-0 in a quarter-final match that took just 45 minutes, then took the first set against Danish teenager Caroline Wozniacki before eventually falling to the world No. 9 in three sets.

The year didn’t start out so well for the personable Wozniak, who missed a month of action in the spring with a shoulder injury. When she returned, she was tentative.

“She was a little bit fragile after her shoulder injury,” said Rob Steckley, Wozniak’s coach. “She just has such a powerful game, a top-10 and potentially top-5 game, and with that, you just have to be mentally strong. I think that’s what is really coming along, believing and trusting in her strokes.”

After losing to Wozniacki in the final at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in April, Wozniak failed to reach the third round in any of her next five tournaments. Going into the French Open, she was struggling.

Her fortunes changed in a major way on the clay of Roland Garros.

After escaping with a three-set win over 59th-ranked Monica Nicolescu of Romania in the opening round, Wozniak hit her stride, routing Petra Martic of Croatia 6-3, 6-3 before ousting clay-court specialist Lourdes Dominguez Lino 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. That victory made her the first Canadian to advance to the fourth round of a Grand Slam event in 10 years.

Though Wozniak was routed by Serena Williams in the round of 16, she was thrilled at having reached the second week of a Grand Slam. Steckley believes Wozniak has the mental toughness and physical condition to go even further in London.

“She knows what it takes to go a full week,” said Steckley. “She’s starting to understand what it takes to go two weeks. She knows she can do it, for sure.

“She is one of the top players in the world, if she puts her mind at the same level as her strokes. If everything goes well, and she has no hesitation, we’ll see her in the second week of Wimbledon.”

The draw bodes well for Wozniak, who could face No. 12 seed Marion Bartoli of France in the third round. Wozniak has won both prior meetings, including a 7-5, 6-3 victory in the final of last year’s event in Stanford — Wozniak’s first WTA tournament title.

Seventh-seeded Vera Zvonareva could be waiting in the fourth round. Wozniak lost her only meeting with the Russian in the second round of last year’s French Open.

Wozniak isn’t the only Canadian singles player with high hopes at Wimbledon.

Dancevic, ranked 126th in the world, opened the Eastbourne Championships by knocking off top seed Igor Andreev of Russia en route to his second career final appearance. Despite dropping a 6-3, 7-6 (5) decision to Dmitry Tursunov of Russia — the man responsible for both of Dancevic’s losses in finals — the 24-year-old Dancevic believes his game is coming together just in time for Wimbledon.

“I was struggling this year with confidence, and I didn’t have many match wins,” said Dancevic, who plays Belgian Steve Darcis in the first round at Wimbledon. “I’ve just been trying to get in as many matches as possible. This is great, for this to happen the week before Wimbledon.”

Like Wozniak, Dancevic’s season began on a sour note.

Prior to Eastbourne, his only ATP Tour victory of the year came in a first-round win over Philipp Kohlschreiber at the Sony Ericsson Open in March. He promptly lost his second-round match in straight sets to world No. 3 Novak Djokovic.

After reuniting with former coach Martin Laurendeau, Dancevic — who was once ranked as high as 65th in the world — saw his game start to turn around.

“The No. 1 thing that we’ve been addressing is the competitive side of things,” said Laurendeau. “Frank’s had the last four or five months pretty tough with a lot of first-round losses, and he’s been all over the place with his game and his confidence.

“It was just a matter of sitting down together and establishing an order of priority. He’s been able to get a lot of confidence going into Wimbledon, and that was the No. 1 one thing to address at this stage.”