Canadian tennis success at Calgary Challenger paced by doubles phenoms

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Calgary has been very good to Kayla Cross …

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So far.

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After winning a junior event here two years ago, the Ontario phenom looks Saturday to capture another title one rung up the tennis ladder, as part of what’s hoped to be a banner weekend for Canadians at the 2022 Calgary National Bank Challenger.

Cross joins Toronto’s Marina Stakusik in the women’s doubles final of the ITF Women’s Pro Circuit event, while male compatriot Gabriel Diallo is in the final four for the singles crown of the ATP Challenger Tour stop at the Osten & Victor Alberta Tennis Centre.

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“Hopefully, we can win,” said Stakusik, moments after her and Cross — both just 17 — crossed off American sisters Carmen and Ivana Corley in a 6-3, 6-3 semifinal Friday afternoon. “This would definitely be our biggest title to date … in doubles, for sure.

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“Ranking-wise and with the draw, we weren’t expecting to get to the final because we weren’t seeded,” Cross said. “But we know ourselves that we play very well together. Our chemistry is amazing, and we just fight very hard. So we’re happy to be in the finals.”

Indeed, while chemistry has come quickly for the new, young duo — they’ve played just once together this year and won the ITF Saskatoon event — Cross and Stakusik weren’t designated as one of the four ranked sides coming into the 16-team Calgary Challenger. But they upended the No. 4-rated crew of American Hanna Chang and Czechia’s Michaela Bayerlova along the way and now set up to face the top-ranked twosome of Catherine Harrison and Sabrina Santamaria, which ousted fellow American Francesca Di Lorenzo and her partner, Chinese Taipei’s En Shuo Liang 6-3, 6-4, also Friday.

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“We knew going in that it was a very strong team that we were competing against,” said Cross of the semi triumph. “They play in college, so they have a lot of energy. So we just wanted to bring in that same energy, as well. We played really, really aggressive.

“We are very aggressive, and our energy and chemistry has been the difference,” continued the product of London, Ont. “We move a lot at the net. And I think we play as pretty solid doubles, not just as two single players playing. When you play as a team, it helps a lot.”

Stakusik agreed.

“We played really well (Friday),” said the Torontonian. “We started off with a lot of energy, and I think that’s what helped us keep momentum up on our side the entire match. I’m hoping we can continue (Saturday) doing the same.”

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In a crazy Friday quarterfinal on the men’s side, unranked Montrealer Diallo defeated sixth-seed Antoine Escoffier, of France, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5 to further thrill Canadian supporters.

Later Friday, eighth-ranked Alexis Galarneau, of Laval, Que., fell in a 6-3, 7-6 (4) quarter to fourth-seed Aleksandar Vukic, of Austria.

And in late quarterfinal action, the docket featured fellow Canadian and second-seed Vasek Pospisil, of Vernon, B.C, dumped by qualifier Maks Kasnikowski, of Poland, in a 7-6 (7), 6-3 upset.

Diallo and Galarneau are 21 and 23 respectively, while Pospisil — at 32 — is the veteran and the high-profile guy of the Canadian contingent in Calgary.

In men’s doubles’ action, Calgary’s Cleeve Harper checked in with Ontario’s Justin Boulais as Canada’s best hope to make the final but fell Thursday in quarters action to Charles Broom, of Great Britain, and Constantin Frantzen, of Germany in 3-6, 6-3, 10-8 fashion. But Harper’s future in the discipline still looks firm.

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“Growing up, I wasn’t much of a doubles player,” admitted Harper, a 21-year-old NCAA national doubles champion with the University of Texas. “I didn’t really like coming to the net, either. I mostly played from the baseline. But one of my coaches, Phil Nemec, who I grew up with, he was a big serve-and-volleyer, so throughout the years of high school and stuff, he kind of introduced me to it. And I started getting a little better at it.

“And just throughout college, you play doubles almost every day — it’s a big point for college tennis. So you have to be good. It’s basically if you win that point, a lot of the time, you end up winning the match. So we focus on it a lot. And that’s where I’ve mainly gotten to love doubles a lot more.”

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Being a local talent, Harper has been a fan favourite at the host venue. But all the Canadians are feeling the warmth of the home crowd.

“Yeah … we are,” Stakusik said. “Especially (Friday). I think a lot more people came out, so I think that’s what also helped us. In tight moments, we heard a lot of cheering. Hopefully (Saturday), there’s going to be a bunch of people watching us. It’s not brand new for us, but it’s really exciting to have a bunch of people.”

Agreed Cross: “It’s always nice to play in front of a home crowd in Canada. We have so many supporters, so it’s very nice. It’s not the first time we’ve played in front of fans, but every time is very special.”

And that support continues to have a positive effect — in general — on the sport.

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“Any time a Canadian does well in our tournament, it sort of piques interest not only for us locally but also for the event,” said tournament director Danny Da Costa, who doubles as CEO of the Osten & Victor Alberta Tennis Centre. “It helps to draw more fans to watch and support them. And it’s great for Canadian tennis when Canadians do well, because it helps elevate their rankings to help them get to bigger and better events.”

“Just look at those two 17-year-olds (Cross and Stakusik) — they are some of the best junior players in the world,” added Da Costa. “In a year or two, we won’t have them at this type of an event. They’ll be playing in bigger ones. So it’s great to see, and it’s great to have them here before they take off.”


Cross and Stakusik take to the court Saturday at noon for the women’s doubles final of the $60,000 ITF Women’s Pro Circuit event … The men’s doubles final is also on tap Saturday, when play for the day begins at 11 a.m. … Also Saturday are the men’s singles semifinals, featuring Diallo, as well as the women’s singles semis … Sunday wraps up the eight-day $75,000 Calgary Challenger with singles finals tennis, beginning at 11 a.m.

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