The Canadian Billie Jean King Cup team will be without some notable names next week in Serbia.
So Leylah Fernandez, the No. 2 ranked singles player in the country, will have to be a leader.
The 18-year-old has just three singles matches, and two BJK Cup ties, on her resumé. But she did pull off one of the more impressive victories in the team’s recent history when she upset Belinda Bencic during a tie against Switzerland in February 2020.
She’ll be backed up in singles by her friend Rebecca Marino, who first represented Canada when she was just a little older than Fernandez, back in 2011. But Marino didn’t play for eight years, returning in 2019.
Marino was injured when Canada played Switzerland (and they could have used her).
But Fernandez is ready to lead
“I’ve been training all my life, I’ve been practicing every day. And my dad’s been teaching me to be a leader on the court, be a leader on a team. I’ve had that experience with a soccer team before. So now, let’s try this in a different environment, in tennis, and we’ll see how it goes,” Fernandez told Open Court in a Zoom interview from Charleston.
“I’m ready for the rest, Win or lose, it’s a team effort. I’m going to do what I can to contribute for the team, and I’m sure my teammates are going to do everything they can.”
Fernandez said her team had some concerns about the tie, which will be played on an indoor Rebound Ace court in Kraljevo next Friday and Saturday.
Those concerns centered mostly around the rapid changes of surfaces Fernandez has had to navigate over the last month.
“I don’t think there was a hesitation for representing Canada. Yes, there was maybe a bit of doubt, from my coaches, saying it’s going to be hard to transition from clay to hard and go back to clay,” Fernandez said.
“But on my part, no. I really want to represent, I’m a proud Canadian and I’m happy to have that honour, being on court with the Canadian flag on my back. So, we’re just going to have figure it out as a team, be prepared physically, have a plan for fitness for that transition, and hope for the best.”
Lesson learned in Miami for Fernandez
If she had to do it again, Fernandez wouldn’t have rushed to Miami to play the qualifying, after the exultation of winning her first WTA Tour career title in Monterrey.
The upward trajectory of her career would indicate she’s unlikely to have that problem again. But if she does, lesson learned.
“I was exhausted, I only had a few hours of sleep. But I don’t regret that decision because it was a learning experience,” Fernandez said. “I always thought I’d be able to endure it, that my body and my mind would be able to play a match right after a final in a different country.
“But now that I’ve lived through it I know that physically, even though I was feeling fine, I wasn’t at 100 per cent. And I was really lucky I wasn’t injured, that I didn’t pull a muscle,” she added.
“We talked as a team and we said, maybe next time we can make a smarter decision based on my game, when my match (is scheduled), and we can move on from there. … Now we know what we can do to be better.”
Happy homecoming for Fernandez family
The first-round loss to Mihaela Buzarnescu, in a tournament so close to home, did allow Fernandez some precious time with her family after so much time far from home in 2021.
And it gave her a little breather before undertaking the clay-court part of the season.
“We hugged it out. We had our pizza, we watched movies. I had a cannoli for desert – not exactly the best diet that day!” Fernandez said. “But I was excited, and just wanted to show him the trophy, how nice it was.
“My dad said, one day he’s going to engrave his name on the trophy, because it was all his hard work. So I’m like, ‘You know what? I think it would be a good idea to engrave our whole family on it, because it’s a family affair.’
“I think we were just having fun that day,” she added. “The most important thing is he was happy his daughter was home safe and sound, and we could spend time together.”
A few days off, then off to the Har-Tru
Fernandez said she took three or four days off. Then, on the weekend, hit the Har-Tru in Florida to start adjusting to the surface change.
Given Har-Tru courts are plentiful in Florida, and the Charleston tournament is on that surface before the WTA Tour moves to Europe and the red clay, it’s actually a handy pit stop.
“I was happy I was able to do a smooth transition without any problems,” said Fernandez, who came out in her Charleston debut and routined No. 16 Zhang Shuai 6-3, 6-1 in the first round.
She faces Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in the second round Wednesday.
A lot of surface changes, in short order
In the last month, Fernandez has gone from hard-court tennis at high altitude, to the heat and humidity and slow-as-molasses courts of Miami, to the Har-Tru of Charleston.
Next week she’ll have to go back indoors on hard court. And then, immediately after that, she’ll return outdoors and quickly have to adjust to the red clay.
Because of Fed Cup, she isn’t entered in a tournament the week April 19 (either Istanbul or indoor clay at Stuttgart). So at least there will be a window to make the adjustments.
Fernandez, the 2019 Roland Garros girls’ champion, reached the third round of the main event last October.
It’s a lot. But the Canadian is looking at the positive side of that, as well.
“All those changes happening – from altitude to hard court to humidity – that actually helps me. I’m able to adapt faster. I’m teaching my body to adapt, not just be ready for one surface,” she said. “And I think that’s a good thing for the future, for the upcoming years.”