PARIS – They had met before, these two.
Canada’s Leylah Annie Fernandez, who had just turned 12, remembered it vividly.
American Cori Gauff, 18 months younger, didn’t remember it at all until her father Corey mentioned it this week.
“I remember it very well. It was a match just as intense as here, we both fought hard,” Fernandez said of their meeting in the quarterfinals of the under-12s at the 2014 Orange Bowl.
“My dad said I won. but I don’t remember. I remember seeing her around, but I don’t remember playing her at all. I was 10, so I don’t remember anything,” said Gauff, laughing.
That one went 6-0, 3-6, 6-2 for Gauff.
Their meeting in the semifinals of the French Open juniors Friday also went Gauff’s way.
The hard-fought 6-4, 6-3 was a tribute to Gauff’s making the necessary adjustments to a rather unorthodox junior game she wouldn’t often see, and a lefty opponent she hadn’t faced in a long time.
Gauff will play another American, 16-year-old Caty McNally, for the title on Saturday.
McNally has fought her way through not one, not two, but three nail-biters to get to the final, and also is in the doubles final. Gauff has yet to lose a set.
Contrast in styles
The final likely will be a lot more straightforward than the semi for Gauff. In Fernandez, she faced a player who doesn’t fit into the junior girls’ typical box in terms of game style. It’s about slices, and drop shots, and drop shot/passing shot combinations with a few doses of power thrown in.
“I thought she played really well, especially the passing shots when I went to net, I couldn’t really predict where she was going. She got to a lot of balls; she was quick. She’s obviously athletic and I’m not used to some of those balls coming back,” Gauff said. “And she’s the first lefty I’ve played in awhile, so definitely a change of pace. I think overall she’s a good player. It’s been a good tournament and she’s played really well.”
Grand Slam debut ends in semis
Even though she’s 18 months younger, Gauff had already been to Paris to compete in the French Open junior qualifying, after winning a tournament down in Florida to earn the trip.
And last September, she reached the US Open junior girls final, on a wild card, at age 13. Gauff also played the Wimbledon juniors last summer, and the Australian Open juniors last January.
For Fernandez, this Roland Garros was her debut at the Grand Slam level.
To reach the semis, upsetting No. 3 seed Maria Camilla Osorio Serrano of Colombia in straight sets in the third round, was a great result.
“Cori really played well, She hits harder and heavier and is very consistent, and fights until the end. She read my drop shots, my slices, she found the solutions,” Fernandez said. “I knew it would be a tough match, but she really played well in important moments and I made some errors here and there, which didn’t help me. But still, I played well.
“I tried to take the ball a bit earlier (in the second set), rob her of time, because she was pushing me back, So I needed to take it earlier and finish the point on the volley, maybe serve and volley. But she was too good today.”
The contrast between the two couldn’t have been more extreme.
This was Team Cori during this match.
And this was Team Leylah Annie.
Phenom Gauff has agent, supporters
Gauff has had the “young phenom” tag put on he. And the result is that there already are a lot of interested parties in her success.
As well, the U.S. Tennis Association supports her through its Team USA initiative, a program that doesn’t take promising young players under the USTA wing, but rather offers support to the players and their current coaches in the private sector.
For Fernandez, it’s a more challenging road. While some help from Tennis Canada has been offered recently, she has gone it alone with her family from a very young age.
Fernandez is the only Canadian junior who competed at the French Open – boy or girl. But she is not part of her national association’s high-performance program, preferring the guidance of her own coach as well as father José.
There were plenty of familiar faces in the crowd for this one, most of whom likely came to watch Gauff, but hopefully came away impressed by her diminutive Canadian opponent as well.