Through all of the exuberant wins and tough defeats of Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez’s young career, the one standout was her incredible poise under any circumstances.
On court, bun in place, Fernandez’s determined game face would intimidate a woman twice her age. But after the handshake, as she lets her long hair tumble down her back, she magically morphs into a smiling, happy-go-lucky teenager she is in real life.
But late on Saturday night in Acapulco, that veteran’s facade crumbled, just a little.
Fernandez finally looked her 17 years.
“Thank you to my family – my mom, my sisters, who support me every week of my career,” she said during a runner-up speech entirely in Spanish at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel in Acapulco.
Her voice broke and the tears flowed, even as she maintained that poise as well as kid could under the circumstances.
The Canadian had given every last bit of energy she had left to come back from 2-6 deficit to Great Britain’s Heather Watson in the second set tiebreak.
She saved five match points. And, improbably, she took the tiebreak to send their singles final to a decider.
Heart intact, but legs done
But that was all she had.
After two wins in qualifying as a wild card and four more in the main draw in the hot, humid Acapulco weather, Fernandez’s legs were done.
Even a rousing plea from coach Romain Deridder couldn’t help. The lionness’s heart was willing – always. But the body couldn’t follow. And a fresh-looking Watson took it 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-1.
It was Watson’s first WTA Tour title in nearly four years. And it helped her jump back into the top 50 for the first time in that long, as well.
Father and coach Jorge, who did it all his way – and basically on his own, with little help from the Canadian federation as Fernandez starred in the junior ranks – made it to Acapulco for the big moment.
He sat alongside Deridder. But he left the bilingual coaching consults to the coach. Fernandez has handed over the reins to the south-Florida based Frenchman as he turns his focus to trying to set his younger daughter, Bianca Jolie, on the same impressive path.
A career-high ranking – and looking for more
After getting through the qualifying at the Australian Open in her first attempt to qualify at any Grand Slam, Fernandez leaped into the top 200.
With her surprise victory over top-five player Belinda Bencic in Fed Cup last month, she made the tennis world take notice.
And with the effort in Acapulco, Fernandez’s ranking will sit at about No. 128 on Monday.
That’s a jump of more than 60 spots in a week. And it will be a game-changer in terms of the tournaments she will have access to in the spring. Her days on the ITF circuit appear to be over.
Fernandez earned 180 ranking points in Acapulco, and $21,400 US in prize money.
Only about 130 points need to be earned to make it to the top 100. That would pretty much guarantee access to the main draws at Grand Slams. That, in turn, would guarantee an influx of prize money that will go a long way towards securing her ability to keep growing and improving.
Monterrey is next
The performance in Acapulco allowed Fernandez to gain direct access into this week’s International-level tournament in Monterrey, Mexico.
She had been entered in the qualifying there. But because she was still alive at this week’s tournament, the “special exempt” rule got her into the main draw.
There, she will play American Lauren Davis in the first round.
(Update: because of several withdrawals, including two seeded players, Davis became the No. 10 seed and was shuffled in the draw. Fernandez now will play qualifier Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland in the first round).
With the Acapulco final on Saturday, Fernandez will have a couple of days to take a short breather and adjust to the altitude in Monterrey.
A wild card has been requested for her at the big Indian Wells tournament, which begins in just over a week.
No word yet on whether she will get it. But you would think she’s made a case at least to get one into the qualifying, even if she’s not American.
Short deadlines help Fernandez’s cause
The rise in rankings already meant that Fernandez can now get into the qualifying in Charleston, which takes place after the Miami Open in early April. Or she could get straight into the main draw at the red-clay tournament in Bogota, Colombia the same week. The WTA has shortened some entry deadlines (normally six weeks) in 2020 to make that possible.
In the shorter term, Fernandez might squeeze into the qualifying at the Miami Open on her own ranking.
Any kind of a move in those events, and Fernandez could aspire to get straight into the main draw in Paris. She won the junior title there a year ago as a 16-year-old. That’s an impressive rise by any measure.
The Canadian likely also can get straight into the main draw at the smaller European clay-court tournaments in Istanbul and Prague, leading up to Paris.
Right now, it’s pretty good to be Leylah Annie Fernandez.
(All screenshots from WTAtv.com)