September 21, 2023

Open Court


Leylah Fernandez and the biggest match of her career



ROLAND GARROS – The first two victories at Roland Garros for Leylah Fernandez were impressive.

Now, she jumps up a level as she gets set to meet No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova Saturday, on Court Suzanne-Lenglen.

It will be the biggest match of the 18-year-old Canadian’s career so far: top-class opponent, big court, later round of a Grand Slam tournament.

“It won’t be an easy match. She’s a great player. She won a few Grand Slams. She went through some difficult times, still bounced back to being in the top 10, the top of the WTA,” Fernandez said after her 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 win over Polona Hercog in the second round.

“I remember … watching her winning the Wimbledon championship. The way she played was really inspiring. Then watching her play and grinding through, like I said, those difficult moments in Grand Slams, tournaments, the way she conducts herself off the court. She’s very professional. I’m excited. I can’t wait to play.”

Kvitova unfamiliar

Fernandez has a bit of an advantage in that she’s watched Kvitova play so much. As a fellow lefty, she might have paid special attention.

For Kvitova, who was asked about her third-round opponent before the outcome was decided, it will be more of a mystery.

“As you mentioned, I don’t know Fernandez, so who knows? But I think my coach left to watch her, I think, or if they are playing already, I don’t know,” she said.

Fernandez has played against a top-10 player and Grand Slam champion in a big stadium before; she lost 6-4, 6-3 to Sofia Kenin in the second round of the US Open just a month ago.

But this is a step up – an opportunity to get to the second week of a Grand Slam – the same tournament at which she was the junior champion just 16 months ago.

It will be the fourth time this season that Fernandez has faced a top-10 player. She upset Belinda Bencic in Fed Cup back in February, before the shutdown. She also faced off against Elina Svitolina in Monterrey, Mexico in early March in her last tournament before the shutdown.

Fernandez also has beaten a former Grand Slam champion – twice. She played American Sloane Stephens (who was ranked No. 37) in Monterrey – and then in her first tournament back in Lexington, Kentucky. And she beat her both times.

But for the most part, until this week, she had not played many top-50 players other than those mentioned above.

First Linette, then Hercog

When a 128-player draw is made, there are obviously going to be pockets of danger for an aspiring player ranked exactly No. 100.

So the outcome for Fernandez, No. 31 seed Magda Linette, was a fairly good scenario even if it was a big challenge.

The two took to a smaller court, fairly late in the evening, on a cold, clammy night. And Fernandez managed to prevail after dropping the first set in a hurry: 1-6, 6-2, 6-3.

A bathroom break to calm down and rid herself of the negative emotions helped turn the tide (where is that bathroom, anyway? We could all use it).

It says something about how underestimated Fernandez remains in this early blush of her career that the husband/coach of her next opponent, Zeljko Krajan, only came out to take a look in person when Fernandez was up 4-0 in the third set.

Polona Hercog’s coach and husband Zeljko Krajan came out to scout late in the third set of Leylah Fernandez’s first-round match. (Stephanie Myles/

As with most, he likely expected wife Polona Hercog’s second-round opponent would be the very solid Linette.

Another solid win against a seasoned opponent

After a first-round loss in the doubles, where Fernandez received a wild card with young French player Diane Parry, the Canadian was back at it Thursday against Hercog.

The Slovene, a 29-year-old with nearly 700 pro matches on her resumé, presented a different challenge.

Hercog has a big serve and a forehand that, with the clay-court surface allowing the big windup to run free, are fearsome. She also has one of the best natural slices on the WTA Tour.

The six-footer’s slice is not one of those “Oh, boy, my opponent has just sliced me, I guess I have to slice her back” type of shots. It’s the real thing.

Surprisingly, she used it relatively little against Fernandez. She went with full power – the heavy forehand and the strong two-handed backhand.

Tough, changeable conditions

If the weather was a little balmier Thursday, it was no less challenging.

“The conditions were not easy. There was sun. It rained a bit. There was some wind.  But I think but with a positive mentality I was able to find solutions,” Fernandez said after her 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 victory. “Polona played a good match, I thought. She tried to vary and destabilize me. But as my dad and coach alway still me, stay calm and do what we do at home, and everything will go well.”

It was the teenager who kept her cool, while the 29-year-old Hercog lost hers.

This was the state of Hercog’s stick after she got through with it in the third set of her match against Fernandez. (Stephanie Myles/

A new level, every year in Paris

Fernandez made her Grand Slam junior debut just two years ago in Paris.

She had played the junior circuit only periodically. Going at it almost exclusively on her own with almost no financial help from the Canadian federation meant that she and her father had to be vagabonds of a sort.

They couldn’t afford the international travel involved in playing the top junior events. Instead, they were grinding it out on the ITF circuit.

There were times that the very young Fernandez even had to travel alone to Europe to play – because there just wasn’t enough money for two trips to places like Heraklion, Greece for a 15-year-old ranked outside the top 700.

By 2018, she was traveling more and went 11-2 during a three-tournament swing of higher level junior events in South America.

She arrived in Paris for her junior Slam debut as the No. 15 seed based in part upon her WTA ranking. She went all the way to the semifinals, where she ran into the No. 16 seed, a 14-year-old named Coco Gauff. She lost 6-3, 6-4.

Junior Slam title in Paris

A year later, she stood at No. 376 in the WTA rankings and was the No. 1 seed in Paris.

And she won it. By the end of 2019 she was ranked into the top 250.

After the Australian Open, where she qualified for her first Grand Slam tournament, she was inside the top 200.

Back in Paris again, she stood at exactly No. 100 and will rise about a dozen spots – even if she doesn’t get past Kvitova on Saturday.

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