September 29, 2023

Open Court


ROLAND GARROS – Taylor Townsend walked into the press conference Friday afternoon rocking the shades.

Not to be outdone, Leylah Fernandez quickly got in on the act as well.

It was emblematic of their highly successful but still-new partnership that Townsend led, and Fernandez followed.

Except, as they’ve gotten to know each other – they didn’t even know each other, not even to say ‘Hi” until they began at Indian Wells, and this is only their fifth tournament – Fernandez is increasingly taking the lead herself.

With the blessing of the far more gregarious and extroverted Townsend, who is seven years her senior.

Their 6-0, 6-4 battering of No. 2 seeds Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula in the Roland Garros women’s doubles semifinal was emphatic, even though the top American pair played better in the second set and did give it a go.

Here’s what it looked like.

But the first 30 minutes of this 64-minute beatdown were a master class by the whirling dervish Townsend, who was all over the place and as by far the best pure doubles player on the court, showed what she can do at her best.

It was as though she had strung her racquets with venom and fire on the day.

(Fernandez played extremely well, too. She made some big shots at big moments. But this day was all Townsend).

There were hugs – so many hugs. Long hugs. Even group hugs.

There was a “révérence” from Fernandez, sort of a tribute curtsy that has become part of their routine after a victory. There was a synchronized twirl. There was a little dancing.

And then there was the sprinkle thing.

The Sprinkle – explained

“Just an inside joke that I have with my team, like, because we found like some of the food sometimes doesn’t have any seasoning on it. I’m, like, sprinkling a little salt, seasoning, just season the crowd, season the ball, the court, everything. So it’s just, you know, adding a little flavor, you now. That’s my thing,” she said.

“I’m just adding a little sprinkling, a little sauce, you know, on what we got going on on court.”

A career-best serve

In addition to the golden nuggets in their press conference, Townsend also came up with this.

“I have been doing push-ups,” she said, laughing. “Yeah, so that was really cool, because I told my coach at the beginning of the season, ‘Hey, I want to hit 130 (mph) by the end of the season. So I’m getting close. So I’m pumped now. So watch out for bombs!”

There was even this moment, when Gauff was close to the net, about to put away a sitter overhead.

“HIT ME!” Townsend said, with a laugh.

(Had Gauff missed, there would have been grounds for hindrance. But it didn’t come to that).

Gauff put it away. But even that barely put a quarter of a smidgen of a smile on the 19-year-old American’s face. It was that kind of a day on the other side.

The blossoming of Fernandez

It’s been a roller-coaster of a season for Fernandez, who will barely remain in the top 100 in singles next Monday after the points from last year’s quarterfinal roll off. She lost in the second round to Clara Tauson of Denmark.

She was in tears after that defeat, speaking to just three reporters, all from Quebec, mainly in French. No microphones, no transcript, and as much as she tried to keep her composure – and did, to a great extent – she couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.

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“It’s tough to lose. I’m not happy. I saw opportunities, I didn’t take them, and that’s it. Too many errors in important moments. She forced me to make errors, when I didn’t have the perfect ball to hit a particular shot. That was my mistake, and I have to work on that. I made mistakes at the net that I usually finish off,” she said. “After midnight, I’ll forget this match and concentrate on the doubles, an opportunity to stay here a few more days.”

It turned out to be 12 more days.

Bringing the doubles into singles – it’s not what you think

It’s lonely out there in singles. And Fernandez is soaking everything in that Townsend can offer her on the doubles court.

“Taylor and I have known each other for a couple of months. I don’t think we talked before partnering before Indian Wells. But then our relationship started to grow more and more off court. We’re very comfortable with each other. Like, we are talking, joking around, and we’re not afraid to tell each other the truth, which that’s the most important thing,” Fernandez said. “When she sees I’m playing, like, really bad, she’s not afraid to say, ‘You’re playing like shit’.”

That got a laugh – Fernandez uses a naughty word!

But it goes further than that.

“I see the confidence that Taylor has, and that helps me in tight moments. Like today, for example, my service games were very tight. Taylor had so much confidence, saying, “No, like, you got this. Focus on the next point, next serve.’ That has helped me to put my mistakes aside and just think of the moment and not really dwell on it,” she added. “That’s what I need to learn as a player for my singles matches, to just keep going, keep having that confidence in myself, my style of game, and not think about my past mistakes.”

A lot at stake Sunday

These two got together with the long-term goal of making the year-end finals.

A semifinal in Madrid, a final in Miami – and now a Grand Slam final, which earns them 1,300 points for getting there, and 2,000 if they win.

They are moving up the rankings in a major way.

They were at No. 9 in the race to Shenzhen coming into Paris. With the run to the finals they are up to No. 3 with a bullet. If they beat Hsieh Su-Wei and Wang Xinyu Sunday, they will slip past Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova and into the No. 2 spot.

Townsend will be at a career high No. 5 in the doubles rankings on Monday. And Fernandez, who had only played doubles semi-regularly before teaming up with Townsend, is already three little ranking points out of the top 20.

If they win on Sunday, she would move up to No. 12 and, crazy as this seems, jump ahead of Gabriela Dabrowski and become the top-ranked doubles player in Canada.

They would also split about $850,000 Canadian if they win – there’s college taken care of for Townsend’s son Adyn.

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