ROME – Tuesday was a long day for Leylah Fernandez, schduled fourth and last on a court on which the first three matches each were endless three-setters
And by the time she got on, around 7 p.m. after an 11 a.m. start on Pietrangeli, the weather had cooled considerably, after a day in which the sun shone throughout and the temperatures were nice and warm.
It was the worst possible scenario for the 20-year-old Canadian, who clearly was suffering with a cold. The sniffles, a lot of coughing (into her top, into her towel, into her arm – MEATY stuff) and a humid, sweaty night didn’t help in a 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-3 loss to Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus.
She wasn’t dramatic about it; she did her best not to get discouraged. But it after a couple of hours it was clearly rough going.
Fernandez vs Sasnovich was the last match at the Foro Italico; it ended hours beyond any other scheduled match, after nearly 2 1/2 hours.
In the end, it had to be a tough one to take; Fernandez was up 3-0 in the third set – two breaks of serve – only to lose six games on the trot.
Here’s what it looked like.
But the thing is, the Canadian wasn’t playing badly. She was facing a seasoned competitor in Sasnovich, who almost always is full value on the effort and also is a very good player. But it was fairly clear that after Fernandez hit the two-hour mark, coughing and spewing and trying to catch her breath, she just ran out of gas.
And so, after an opening loss to (then) 15-year-old Mirra Andreeva in Madrid, it’s another early exit in Rome as she heads to Roland Garros.
Tough to find back-to-back wins
These aren’t the best of times for Fernandez.
She’s done so well in doubles with Taylor Townsend (who was on hand cheering Tuesday night) that she’s up to a career best No. 36 in the rankings. And on the WTA site, that means that her doubles record is the default when you pull up her page.
As great as the doubles has been going, that’s not what she’s out there for.
So far in 2023, Fernandez has won back-to-back main draw matches only once: in her season-opening tournament in Auckland.
She has done so twice in qualifying at the high-cutoff tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Doha (where there were three rounds and she ended up losing the third qualifying match).
Because she’s dropped in the rankings, Fernandez has run up against tough customers in those second rounds. Caroline Garcia at the Australian Open and Indian Wells. Iga Swiatek in Dubai (breadsticks). Belinda Bencic in Miami (also breadsticks). Paula Badosa in Charleston.
Encouraging news on the serve
One thing that has stood out for much of 2023 is Fernandez’s struggles on serve.
It’s not about a big number of double faults, but more technique going awry and a noticeable drop in velocity.
As a natural righty, the technical side is always going to be a work in progress. Even at the best of times, it can look awkward.
But despite a low first-serve percentage overall – notably, at 34 per cent in WINNING the second set (49 percent overall) – it looked better. And she won 58 per cent of her second-serve points in that second set.
Not only did it appear that she has quickened up the motion a little bit, making it a little more aggressive, he was also regularly hitting 150 km/h and above with her second serve.
But that lack of energy showed in the third; she won just 1-of-11 points with her second serve. And that was a pretty big factor in the outcome.
Boldness on the second serve takes confidence. But with Fernandez’s game, she basically has to maximize every tool she has.
With the expansion to a 96-player draw in 2023, you have to get to the third round to earn approximately the same number of points that you earned for making the second round in 2022 (both are round-of-32). And that’s what Fernandez did last year.
It’ll depend on what players below her in the rankings do, but she shouldn’t take too much of a rankings hit.
The hit comes from the lack of matches. The Canadian is defending a quarter-final run from last year’s Roland Garros in a few weeks, which accounts for nearly half of her ranking points. An early loss there could drop her well outside the top 100.
The doubles doesn’t hurt. Fernandez and Townsend, who reached the Madrid semifinals and entered the conversation for the year-end championships at No. 7, face the tricky Monica Niculescu and Makoto Ninomiya in the first round later this week.