TORONTO – Simona Halep was looking for a doubles partner to get at least a match in before starting her Rogers Cup quest.
A long break after winning Wimbledon (and, it turns out, an ongoing Achilles issue that curtailed her singles run) meant not much practice.
In the process, Halep was able to give a bucket-list moment to young Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez.
The two – who won the French Open juniors 11 years apart – went to the match tiebreak before falling to the top team of Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke.
But they had some great moments.
Fernandez was able to turn the page on her nervous Rogers Cup stadium court single debut. The 16-year-old was able to manage only one game against qualifier Marie Bouzkova.
(It turns out that Bouzkova later mowed down three Grand Slam champions: Sloane Stephens, Jelena Ostapenko and on Friday, an injured Halep on her way to a semifinal date against Serena Williams. So Fernandez probably feels a little better about it all now).
TORONTO – At 16, Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez is as poised on court (and off) as you could want.
But the Fernandez who entered the big stadium at the Rogers Cup Monday to make her main-draw debut wasn’t that Fernandez.
She looked her age, something extremely rare for the teenager who won the French Open juniors in early June and her first pro title at the $25,000 ITF tournament in Gatineau a few weeks ago.
Fernandez reached the final of a much bigger tournament, the $80,000 ITF in Granby, just two weeks ago.
But on Monday against qualifier Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic, a 21-year-old currently at a career-high No. 91 in the singles rankings, she flinched a little.
And by the time got got her bearings, it was a little too late to make a run.
“I was very surprised that I was that nervous. I don’t think that has happened in a few years. But having that nervousness is something I’ll learn, and I’ll practice, figure out the tactics to get over the nerves as quickly as possible,” the Canadian said after a 6-0, 6-1 loss.
Her opponent also was a Grand Slam junior champion. Bouzkova reached the Wimbledon junior girls’ final a few weeks before her 16th birthday. And two months later, she won the US Open junior girls’ singles title.
Notably, Bouzkova crushed Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 6-1 in the second round in Flushing Meadow. And yet, it was Ostapenko who won the French Open title three years later.
Transition from junior to pro success a mystery road
The transition between major junior success and pro success is an exercise that would give those in the prediction business a lot of sleepless nights.
For Bouzkova, who fits the prototype of the 21st century female player at 5-foot-11, it has taken five years to get into the top 100.
She qualified for her first Grand Slam last year in New York. And she made it in as a lucky loser this year at the French Open and Wimbledon. She won her first match at that level there against German veteran Mona Barthel.
For Fernandez, a nasty blister that popped up in practice meant a fairly complex tape job on her right hand Monday.
It was something that definitely hampered her on the backhand side. We got a look at it Tuesday, and it’s on the right side, bottom of her palm, just before the wrist.
Doubles with Halep
A silver lining on a tough day Monday is the opportunity to play with Wimbledon champion, and defending Rogers Cup champion, Simona Halep in doubles.
Fernandez said that Halep had approached the tournament director asking for a doubles wild card, and the tournament suggested she play with a Canadian.
Halep picked Fernandez off the list – the 2018 French Open champion with the 2019 French Open girls’ champion. Seems like symmetry.
Weather permitting, we’ll see how that goes on Tuesday.
With four of the five top-ranked Canadian women not on the roster, this week’s crucial Fed Cup World Group I playoff tie in the Czech Republic is a great opportunity for 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez.
The top-10 junior will be playing No. 2 singles for Canada. She’ll debut against Czech No. 1 Marketa Vondrousova Saturday in the second match, after Rebecca Marino plays another Fed Cup rookie, Karolina Muchova.
Fernandez currently is at a career-high No. 376 in the WTA Tour singles rankings.
And just to be nominated to the squad – never mind see action – is already a great accomplishment.
But it’s not the only banner moment in the Fernandez family this week.
Fernandez’s little sister Bianca Jolie, who turned 15 in February and is her most frequent practice partner, made her pro tournament debut this week in Ecuador.
Want to start your pro career? Go to Guayaquil
We’re not sure exactly how Bianca Fernandez got into the ITF $15,000 event in Guayaquil. But it likely has something to do with the chaos going on inside the ITF World Tour at the moment.
There are a lot of players out there who are having trouble finding tournaments to get into. So note to them: it appears this one is wide open.
Next week’s $15,000 in Bucaramanga, Colombia looks similar.
Bianca Fernandez wasn’t on the original Guayaquil entry list. The list contained 147 names before withdrawals. But of that long list, only one player, Fernanda Brito of Chile, had a WTA Tour ranking (at No. 547). Brito also entered as No. 1 in the ITF Tour rankings.
Only two of 21 main-draw accepted players showed failed to show. But there were only 12 signed up for a (theoretical) 32-player qualifying. It seems only eight of them showed up. So they all got direct entry into the main draw.
Add in the one junior-ranked player and three wild cards, and you have one spot remaining in the 32-player main draw.
Fernandez has no pro ranking of any kind; she had never played a pro-level event. But she got direct entry into the singles and the doubles. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of showing up. And the Fernandez sisters’ father and coach, Jorge, hails from Ecuador.
Acquits herself well in debut
In the first round, Fernandez came up against American Akilah James. James, 26, is an experienced ITF campaigner whose career high was No. 678 back in 2017.
She who played collegiately at South Carolina State and the University of Arizona, and has been out on the low-level ITF circuit for the last three years.
Fernandez came close. James won, 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (3).
Not as precocious as big sis
When big sister Leylah Annie was still 15, she made her junior Grand Slam debut and reached the semifinals at the 2018 French Open. She lost to eventual champion Cori Gauff.
The younger sister is not quite as precocious.
She has played some junior tennis although, like her sister, she didn’t play at all last fall.
But she’s won her share of matches since essentially making her debut on the ITF junior circuit about a year ago.
The sisters teamed up for the first time in doubles at the Canadian junior tune-up event the week last year’s US Open.
Outside the structure
Despite Leylah Annie Fernandez’s nomination to the Fed Cup team this week, she is not a product of the Tennis Canada development program that has gotten so much positive press over the last few weeks with the successes of Bianca Andreescu and Félix Auger-Aliassime.
Just before she reached that French Open semifinal (with the exception of Layne Sleeth at the Australian Open, Fernandez was the only Canadian junior – boy or girl – to play in junior Grand Slam main draws in 2018), she did get some help for traveling expenses. High-performance chief Louis Borfiga told Tennis.Life at the time that the financial help came from a separate fund outside the main Tennis Canada development structure.
The way the high-performance program structure is set up, Borfiga said, there are certain criteria to meet. And Fernandez didn’t meet those criteria. But he said they would do what they could to assist.
Doing it on their own
Fernandez was given a stipend at the beginning of 2019, which allowed her and father Jorge to travel to Australia, where Fernandez reached the singles final.
Shortly after that, Fernandez reached her career high of No. 4 in the world in the juniors.
Her coach/father had asked for more help, but it was not forthcoming. That may have changed.
The Fernandez family relocated to Deerfield Beach, Fla. a couple of years ago. In 2018, Leylah Fernandez went back and forth to Montreal, where she was working with a Belgian coach named Francisco Sanchez.
That ended, and now she, too, is permanently in Florida and working full-time with her father.
It will be interesting to see where both Fernandezes go from here, essentially making their own way through the choppy waters of professional tennis.
(Tennis Canada/Roger Lauzon photos, taken at the Canadian U16 outdoor champions last summer in Gatineau, Que., were provided by Tennis-Québec)
MELBOURNE, Australia – It was the first junior Australian Open for 16-year-olds Clara Tauson of Denmark and Leylah Annie Fernandez of Canada.
And both will leave with trophies – with the champion’s hardware going to Tauson.
The Dane defeated Fernandez 6-4, 6-3 to win her first junior Grand Slam title.
Tauson is three months younger than Fernandez. But she’s a far more experienced junior campaigner, having now gone an impressive 34-1 on the junior circuit in singles since last year’s Wimbledon.
Her only loss came in the second round of the junior US Open, to Dasha Lopatetskaya of Ukraine.
(Lopatetskaya, still just 15, hasn’t played any juniors since that US Open. She is one of many junior-aged girls to have skipped the event. Instead, Lopatetskaya won a pair of $25,000 ITF women’s pro tournaments in Hong Kong).
Tauson’s uncle Michael, now 53, reached No. 101 in the ATP Tour rankings and notched victories over many notable players including Petr Korda, Derrick Rostagno, Franco Davin, Henri Leconte, Francisco Roig and Younes El Aynaoui.
Contrast in team size
Tauson is a family project, and also a Danish tennis project.
Her father Soren is her “traveling coach and he’s my coach at home. But I also have my coaches at home. I have a pretty big team at home with (physical) coaches, two or three tennis coaches, yeah,” Tauson said after her victory.
For Fernandez, there is just father Jorge.
They’re not getting much help from Tennis Canada, which has strict criterion under which it offers financial support to players. So they’re more or less going it alone, and the father-daughter team now is inside the top 10 in the ITF junior rankings, and inside the top 450 in the WTA Tour rankings.
Here’s what it looked like inside Rod Laver Arena.
The Australian Open is always a bit bereft of the top junior players than the other majors. As far a distance as most have to travel, some simply can’t afford it.
There typically also is a group of players, even though they remain junior aged, who wrapped up their junior careers at the end of the previous season. And so, once Melbourne arrives, the draws seem a bit sparse at the top.
The girls’ draw featured just four of the top 20 junior players. Mananchaya Sawangkaew of Thailand, ranked No. 22, was the No. 5 seed.
Among the missing are No. 1 Clara Burel, No. 2 Cori Gauff, No. 4 Xiyu Wang and no. 7 Xinyu Wang of China, No. 5 Maria Osorio Serrano, No. 6 Iga Swiatek (who played in the women’s main draw and the mixed doubles), and Americans Caty McNally, Hurricane Black and Alexa Noel. The majority of them are 2001s – i.e. they are turning 18 this season and are among the most experienced ones.
Gauff, who is still 14 and one of only two players born in 2004 ranked in the junior top 100, won the Orange Bowl in early December. But she has yet to start her 2019 season.
Great sportsmanship by Tauson and Fernandez
What was striking about the end of this match were the nice moments from both players, including a hug at the net.
For a runner-up, Fernandez showed not only great respect for the magnitude of the moment for her opponent, she also nailed her trophy presentation speech.
That included a quick correction when the master of ceremonies mistakenly turned her into an American.
The American junior Fed Cup team will hold on to the trophy, after defending its title Sunday in Budapest, Hungary.
And the Spanisb boys came back from the brink to defeat France and win the junior Davis Cup.
The girls’ final against Ukraine came down to a match tiebreak in the deciding doubles, won 11-9 by Americans Coco Gauff and Alexa Noel over Lyubov Kostenko and Dasha Lopatetskaya.
The Americans had been down 1-4 and 6-8 in the tiebreak.
The squad was led by the youngest member, 14-year-old Coco Gauff. Ma is 15, Noel 16.
The team eye black for the final was an especially good touch.
“I’m really proud of my team. We’ve overcome a lot this week. Me, Alexa and Connie (Ma) hadn’t really spoken before this trip, so I think we make such a great team, constantly supporting each other no matter what the score,” Gauff told the ITF website.
“This has been such a long week. Alexa and I have had some long, tense battles. We might not have always played well, but I think we’re champions because we fought harder.”
Third-time matchup for Gauff
Down 0-1, Gauff needed to win her singles against Lopatetskaya (who defeated her in the US Open juniors last month), to keep her team alive.
She did, 6-1, 4-6, 6-0.
A year ago, at 13, had been in the same situation, against the same opponent. The U.S. and Ukraine met in the finals of the under-14 world junior championships in both 2016 and 2017.
Noel had been part of the 2016 under-14 squad that had lost that deciding double match tiebreak against Ukraine.
Slovakia defeated Russia for the bronze.
The American girls had a tough act to follow. Last year, the powerhouse team of Amanda Anisimova, Katy McNally and Whitney Osuigwe (all junior Slam champions or finalists), won the junior Fed Cup. But they aged out of it this year.
Canadian girls make playoff round
The Canadian team, led by 16-year-old junior French Open semifinalist Leylah Annie Fernandez (with Jada Bui and Sara-Maude Fortin), made it out of their pool but were beaten by Russia in the quarterfinals.
Fernandez went 5-1 at No. 1 singles. But the squad went 1-5 at No. 2.
Spanish boys beat France
In the junior Davis Cup final, the team of Carlos Alcaraz Garfia, Pablo Llamas Ruiz and Mario Gonzalez Fernandez were up against versus France.
After dropping the first rubber, Spain was down to the wire as Harold Mayot had a match point on Alcarez Garfia at 6-4, 5-3 and the Spaniard serving. Mayot also had a shot at serving out the victory at 6-4, 5-4. But he couldn’t make it.
Spain then won that second singles rubber, and the doubles was routine.
The last time Spain won the junior Davis Cup was 2013, when Jaume Munar (now in the top 100 in the ATP Tour rankings), was on the team.
It’s too early to predict stardom for the Spanish kids. But the ITF’s report on the story notes that Albert Costa was on the winning 1991 squad. Tommy Robredo and Marc Lopez won it in 1998 and Roberto Bautista Agut was on the winning team in 2004. Oh yes, Rafael Nadal was part of the 2002 team that defeated the U.S. in the final.
American, Canadian boys out of medals
The American squad of Toby Kodat, Martin Damm and Alexander Lee went 1-2 in their pool group, and so could not advance to the medal playoff round.
The kids did sweep all three matches in the second pool (9th-16th) to maximize, finishing ninth overall.
SHERBROOKE, Que. – When Rebecca Marino returned from a five-year retirement last February in the qualifying of an entry-level ITF event in Turkey, the former world No. 38 was starting from scratch.
As she looks to her quarter-final match against No. 1 seed Arina Rodionova Friday at the Granby Challenger, she has the top 250 within reach if she can win the title, in only her 10th tournament back.
It took a crazy number of matches at those low levels to even get a rankings number next to her name. Marino went 20-1 through four weeks in Antalya, Turkey and checked in at … No. 624.
After a break, she returned for a three tournaments at the $25,000 level in Japan – again, having to earn her way in through qualifying. And at end of that swing, she was on the books at … No. 436.
A planned swing through the Har-Tru circuit in the southern U.S. was cut short by a shoulder issue. But now, with opportunities in her home country to get into the bigger events, she can really make a move.
After six weeks off, Marino returned at the $25,000 Winnipeg Challenger, and won it. It was the first time she had played in Canada since 2012, the fourth tournament title of her comeback – and the biggest.
This week in Granby, it’s a $60,000 tournament, with proportionately more ranking points at stake. And Marino has done well through two rounds to get to the quarterfinals. She posted a 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over Maria Sanchez of the U.S. in the second round, and now takes on No. 1 seed Arina Rodionova.
At 28, Rodionova has been around longer than Marino, without the long break. Still, the two never met during Part I of Marino’s tennis career. They faced off for the first time last week in Gatineau, where the Canadian went after winning in Winnipeg and may not have been in full nick.
Rodionova won that one, 6-2, 6-4.
Here’s how the rankings picture looks for the 27-year-old.
Marino entered the Granby tournament ranked No. 329. Already, with her effort in Granby, she’s at about No. 310.
If she can beat Rodionova and reach the semifinals, she would break into the top 300 at about No. 292. If she can reach the final, she’d be at about No. 273. And if she can win the event, she likely would break into the top 250, or close.
With the Rogers Cup qualifying coming up in just over a week, and then her hometown Challenger in Vancouver (a big one, with $100,000 in prize money and the corresponding attractive bounty of ranking points), the time is now.
Doubles a mutual admiration society
On Thursday, Marino teamed up with fellow Canadian Leylah-Annie Fernandez, a 15-year-old who reached the semifinals of the junior French Open in her first appearance at the Grand Slam level last month.
Fernandez is playing just her fifth pro event of the season.
With the 12-year age difference, these two are quite the May-December pairing and Marino very much the big sister figure. And with Marino training regularly in Montreal with the Tennis Canada staff alongside Fernandez and her coach Francisco Sanchez, they’ve struck up a bit of a mutual admiration society.
I’m flattered! Honestly the feeling is mutual; she’s such a hard worker, and a genuinely kind person. So happy she’s kicking butt 👍