Leylah Fernandez didn’t face vintage Coco Vandeweghe late Monday night in Monterrey, Mexico.
But the current incarnation, a player who is coming back from a pair of debilitating injuries and is just finding her tennis legs again, was no match for the 18-year-old Canadian.
Fernandez breezed to a 6-3, 6-2 victory.
And in doing so, she flipped the switch on the serving woes that scuttled her effort in Guadalajara last week.
(Update: Fernandez will NOT play No. 1 seed Sloane Stephens in the second round. The American went down 6-2, 6-2 to lucky loser Kristina Kucova. The way Fernandez has performed against Stephens and the way Stephens has been struggling, it’s hard to call it a lucky break).
Impressive serving performance by Fernandez
How good was she?
Fernandez lost just three points on serve in the first set, in five service games. And none of them were on her second serve.
Of course, she only hit four second serves out of 23 in the entire set.
The second set was even better. Fernandez added four well-placed aces, and lost just four points in four service games.
Vandeweghe won three of the four points against the Canadian’s second serve. But again, she only had four shots at the second serve.
“I was struggling a lot with my serve last week, but between the (match) days I was doing a lot of practicing, getting the rhythm back And even over here (in Monterrey), making a few baskets of serves every day, playing points trying to get that rhythm back, get that competition serving back,” Fernandez said in a post-match Zoom call.
“Today I was happy that I served well, but it was a good, solid game.”
Altitude in Guadalajara a struggle
Flash back a week, in the 5,500-foot altitude of Guadalajara, and Fernandez was really up against it.
She was not, by any means, alone.
The level of tennis overall at last week’s WTA event was mediocre at best – for anyone not named Genie Bouchard, it seemed.
The serving, in particular, bore the brunt of it.
The biggest takeaway from the week was the number of second serves that wobbled in under 120 km/hour, and the number of second-serve returns that were crushed – but crushed well beyond the baseline.
Fernandez managed to get through her first-round match against Russian Anna Kalinskaya, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. But she hit 11 double faults.
(Kalinskaya bested her, with 12).
There were 11 breaks of serve in all.
The next day against Aussie Astra Sharma, Fernandez added another nine double faults in a 6-4, 6-4 defeat.
Annoyance in Guadalajara
If you remove the double faults in the match against Sharma, Fernandez won 19-of-25 second serves – a 76 per cent success rate.
But the high number of errors meant she faced 10 break points, and only saved two of them.
It was not a good week, and Fernandez was visibly annoyed on court with the way she was struggling. This, for anyone who has watched the 18-year-old and the veteran’s game face she sports when they start counting the score, was an unusual sight.
“It was a little bit hard last week in the altitude. Harder than I thought it would be,” Fernandez said. “This week, the first day that I got here I still felt the balls were flying, but not as much as last week. So it was a little bit easier to control.”
The altitude in Monterrey is about 2,100 feet – still tricky, but nothing like Guadalajara. The tournament uses US Open regular-duty balls, the same ones the women use at the US Open.
The high-altitude balls in Guadalajara are slightly bigger in circumference, and play differently, especially when the players use them so rarely.
“I played a pretty solid match. I didn’t give too many free points,” Fernandez said. “And I was more offensive than her tonight, especially on the serve.”
Long road back for Vandeweghe
First, Vandeweghe struggled with a foot/nerve issue that kept her off the court for eight months.
Then, as she was working her way back, she suffered a nasty injury to her right hand. A container that had been in the microwave exploded on her, just days after completing a successful World Team Tennis season last July.
The blast tore a couple of ligaments. And Vandeweghe returned just last week. The injury made it impossible to grip a racquet, never mind serve. And so the 30-year-old American is still a long way from reclaiming her biggest weapon.
Vandeweghe is one of the elite servers on the WTA Tour. She can get it the velocity up close to 200 km/hour effortlessly, and she can follow that serve into the net as well.
Last week and Monday night, she rarely broke 160 km/hour. But she will surely work back up to her level now that she’s playing again.
She also has to get back to match fitness. And the slower footwork led to bundles of unforced errors.
Fernandez took full advantage of all of that.
Fernandez vs. Stephens, Part IV
In her second round, Fernandez may face a player who has become all-too-familiar over the last year.
Fernandez first faced Sloane Stephens on these very same courts in Monterrey a year ago, in the first round. And she beat her in three sets.
She played her again in the first tournament back after the shutdown, in Lexington, Kentucky. Again in the first round. And she beat her in straight sets.
And during the tune-up week before the Australian Open last month, the two met again – this time, in the second round.
Stephens was bothered by a blister on her hand that was in a very awkward position to tape. And she wavered back and forth on whether there was any point in fighting hard for the win regardless of the discomfort.
In the end, Fernandez won it going away, 6-3, 6-1.
It’s to the point where you’d think, if they ran each other into the locker room, they might turn around and head in the opposite direction – or at least joke about how often they run into each other on court.
But Fernandez said it’s all good.
“We do cross paths and, honestly, we don’t talk about the previous matches,” she said. “Just have a small chat and see how everybody’s doing, and just hope for the best for each other.”
Stephens searching for first 2021 win in Monterrey
If familiarity breeds (on-court) contempt, you’d expect Stephens, who hasn’t played since the Australian swing, to be eager to get on the board in their rivalry.
She’ll also be eager to put her first victory in the books for 2021.
After the loss to Fernandez in Melbourne, Stephens went out in three sets to No. 26 seed Yulia Putintseva in the first round of the Australian Open.
Then, in the first round of the WTA tournament held at Melbourne Park during the second week of the major, Russia’s Varvara Gracheva beat her 6-2. 6-2.
Gracheva, 20, was ranked no. 95.
But before she can take on Fernandez, the 27-year-old American must beat lucky loser Kristina Kucova of Slovakia on Tuesday.
After withdrawing from Guadalajara last week, Stephens appears in fighting form. She is the only one of the five or six top entries on the original list not to withdraw from Monterrey. That included Victoria Azarenka and Johanna Konta.
Ranked No. 44, she is the top-ranked player in the tournament – and the only former Grand Slam champion..