June 18, 2024

Open Court


Pre-match nerves turn to dominance for Leylah Fernandez

ROLAND GARROS – The previous day, on the practice court, Leylah Fernandez was all out of sorts.

She was as far back on the main site as you can get, on Court 16 – a court that requires a trek over a little-used path and, if you want to take a photo, rustling through some dense and prickly bushes.

The 21-year-old was not in a good way.

But some 24 hours later, she was dominant in a 6-2, 6-0 victory over French wild card Jessika Ponchet.

“The first match of the tournament is never easy. You don’t want to lose in the first matches. And the last time I played against Jessika she beat me; if I remember right, it was 6-0, 6-1,” Fernandez said. “For me, it’s tough to overcome that type of emotion. I was a little nervous. And I was frustrated with my errors because I know that my level could be a lot better,” she added. “My team saw that I was nervous; they saw that change in my emotions and helped me get back on the right track. They gave me positive phrases and told me that the most important thing was to play my game today.

“And today, I was very happy that I was able to execute that.”

Not much time to prepare

With the rain delays on Monday, a lot of matches were moved to other, vacant courts on fairly short notice.

And Fernandez found herself on Court 10, with a match time in … 45 minutes.

“I’d just finished hitting before they covered the courts. And when I came in to recover and change, I thought it was going to be a long day – a long night. And that I could either play soon, or hours from now,” she said. “I was ready to read my book, maybe take a little nap. And then I got the call that I was playing in 45 minutes.

No problem, it turned out.

The last time Fernandez gave up two or fewer games came last summer in Cleveland, against Linda Noskova. But it hasn’t happened much in recent years; even the victories have seemed like a slog at times.

So it had to feel good. There was little Fernandez could have done much better against Ponchet, who despite some pretty unorthodox strokes is a decent player.

And there was a good crowd, even with the court change and even though she was starting her Roland Garros campaign at about the same time as one of her inspirations, Rafael Nadal, was wrapping up what well might be his final one.

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One loss, so long ago

It tells you something about the mindset of an athlete – and Fernandez’s mindset in particular – that her previous meeting with Ponchet still sticks in her craw.

If she wasn’t quite on point about the score – it was 6-1, 6-2 – that’s understandable.

Because it was nearly seven years ago, when Fernandez was just 14 years old and Ponchet was nearly 21 and a relative veteran. Fernandez was a wild-card entry into a $25,000 ITF tournament in Gatineau, Quebec.

Fernandez didn’t even have a ranking yet. That would come two weeks later after a pair of qualifying victories at a similar tournament in Winnipeg the previous week came on the computer, giving her points from three different events. She checked in for the first time at No. 1024.

It surely was random, but Fernandez gave up one fewer game to Ponchet than the Frenchwoman did to her, all those years ago.

In the second round on Wednesday (weather permitting, with all the backup on Tuesday), Fernandez is to face Wang Xiyu, the lefty component of the young Chinese Wangs.

Wang, 23, was briefly inside the top 50 and currently sits at No. 61.

The two have never met, either in the pros or the juniors.

Fernandez has a positive record against fellow southpaws. In fact, she’s won five of her last six – including over Beatriz Haddad Maia in Montreal last summer, and over Marketa Vondrousova in the Billie Jean King Cup finals.

Roland track record

A year ago in Paris, Fernandez (then ranked No. 49) upset No. 21 Magda Linette in her first round, before losing a tough, tough one to qualifier Clara Tauson in the second round, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.

Tauson was the player who defeated her in her first junior Grand Slam final, in Australia in 2019.

A few months after that, Fernandez won the junior title at Roland Garros over the then rather lightly-regarded American Emma Navarro.

In 2022, Fernandez was a Roland Garros quarterfinalist before a foot injury took her out in a match against Martina Trevisan.

Later, Fernandez dropped a pair of revenge bagels on Trevisan in Billie Jean King Cup play.

Also – two years later, still just 16, Fernandez returned to that Gatineau ITF mentioned above – and won it.

Apparently she never forgets a slight 😉

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