Watching Leylah Annie Fernandez play tennis you sometimes ask has anyone ever played the sport so intensely, determinedly and with 100 per cent commitment?
She has a deliberate, measured routine before every point, totally throws herself into her shots and scampers around the court with exceptional speed and balance.
On Saturday at the Swiss Tennis Arena in Biel, world No. 5 Belinda Bencic felt the full force of the dynamo that is Fernandez and came out on the short end of a 6-2, 7-6(3) scoreline in the third match of the Fed Cup Qualifiers tie.
Fernandez’ performance earned the admiration and the appreciation of the Swiss fans but the win was Canada’s only one in the best-of-five match tie. Jil Teichmann wrapped things up for the home-side in the fourth match with 6-3, 6-4 victory over Gabriela Dabrowski, giving the Swiss an insurmountable 3-1 lead.
Canadian captain Heidi El Tabakh might have sounded a little harsh on Friday suggesting, after Fernandez’ 7-6(4), 6-4 loss to the No. 68-ranked Teichmann, that the 17 year old could have played more aggressively.
A day later she proved to be prophetic as Fernandez threw caution to the wind with an all-out barrage from the baseline at the very outset – the opening two points being a big forehand forcing shot and then an outright forehand winner.
“I think the difference was that I was more aggressive,” Fernandez said comparing Saturday vs. Bencic to Friday vs. Teichmann. “I took the ball earlier, just went for my shots.”
Asked about the challenge of being hyper aggressive, the No. 185-ranked Fernandez said, “it was difficult but it’s a mindset like my dad (Jorge) said. After a talk with my dad who is also my coach and my coach (Frenchman Romain Deridder) – they both told me that it doesn’t matter if I win or lose, ‘hit your winners, make your mistakes and keep playing.’”
She had 25 winners to 17 for Bencic in the one-hour and 27-minute match, with many of them being break-out forehands and backhands down-the-line that left a stranded Bencic metres away.
“First of all I have to really congratulate her,” Bencic said sportingly at her post-match media conference about Fernandez. “I think she played a fantastic match. She was the really the better player all around. I didn’t really have the solutions to beat her today. She took the ball early and gave me some problems.
“I could have played better here and there and on the important points, and served a little bit better (she won only 32 per cent of second-serve points to 52 per cent for Fernandez). But at the end of the day she was just really solid and mentally strong. I think she’s already at great player at 17 years old.”
Fernandez has a busy bustling pace around the court between points and occasionally self exhorts with vocal bursts that are usually indecipherable. “I honestly don’t know,” she replied when asked what she’s saying. “I think it’s just keeping positive and pumping myself up.
“I don’t know what I say between points – sometimes vamos, c’mon, allez –it depends and it varies with what I feel that day or that point,” added the multilingual (English-French-Spanish) daughter of a Filipino mother and an Ecuadorian father.
El Tabakh delighted in watching, from the captain’s on-court seat, her precocious player perform. “Leylah went out swinging with nothing to lose,” she said. “She handled things really well emotionally and mentally and she stayed tough. It’s a huge win against a top-5 player. Beating Belinda in Switzerland – it is the biggest win of her career.
“Being aggressive – that was the game-plan today,” said El Tabakh. “It was the only way for Leylah to win and she executed it perfectly from start to finish. Hopefully she sticks with that game-style because I think when she plays like that she produces really good tennis.”
Fernandez’s sublime performance brought Canada back to 2-1 down in the best-of-five match tie. That left Dabrowski, replacing injured Genie Bouchard, tasked with beating Teichmann in the fourth singles to keep alive Canada’s hopes of qualifying for the new-formatted Fed Cup Finals in Hungary in April.
It was always going to be a long-shot that doubles specialist Dabrowski could upset Teichmann (above). She started well taking a 2-0 lead but the 22-year-old Swiss quickly bounced back, running off eight of the next nine games to lead 2-0 in the second set. Dabrowski was reeling but she dug in and held her own from the baseline in many rallies. She got back on serve trailing 5-4 in the second set before Teichmann broke serve in the final game to wrap up the 81-minute contest.
When it was suggested to Dabrowski that she had played quite a lot of good singles tennis during the match, she replied, “great but it wasn’t enough. I’m disappointed.
“I wish I had more singles matches under my belt in general, wish I had more singles training, wish that we weren’t all sick and injured this week, wish we had a fifth player. There are lots of things that I wish were different. I did the best I could in that moment but it wasn’t enough. My shots weren’t clean enough, weren’t accurate enough.”
With Bianca Andreescu not yet ready with her ongoing left knee issue and Bouchard injuring her left wrist – she had an MRI, an ultrasound and an x-ray and, according to El Tabakh, is out of action “for at least two or three weeks” – Canada was reduced to a two-woman team.
Reflecting on her week as captain, El Tabakh summed up, “we had one of those weeks where almost everything goes wrong starting with Bianca. We were hoping that her knee was going to hold up and at least be able to play some doubles, and I think it regressed a bit when she got here. That was a bit of a setback and then we had a freak accident with Genie, the last five minutes of her practice she hurt her wrist quite badly.
“And usually we come a week early and we practice a lot of doubles and singles and unfortunately with the girls being sick this week (everyone except Fernandez suffered from a flu-ish bug with the sniffles and Dabrowski actually had a strep throat that resulted in difficulty swallowing and swollen lymph nodes) we weren’t able to get in a lot of singles or doubles.”
About having a five-woman team as the Swiss did, El Tabakh said, “you could say we could have, should have, but unfortunately all the players are hurt back home. So that didn’t really give us an option for a fifth player. We came with one of one of our best teams and unfortunately two of them are hurt. Once we were here there’s nothing we could do but fight. And that’s exactly what we did.”
A draw in Budapest, site of the Fed Cup Finals in April, on Tuesday will determine against whom and where Canada will next play the weekend of April 17-18. It will need a victory to be in a position a year from now to again attempt to qualify for the 12-nation Fed Cup grand finale.
In the meantime, Fernandez will be fascinating to follow as she continues toward what seems like a make-able goal of reaching the top-100 this year, maybe even before her 18th birthday on September 6th.
She’s as business-like and committed about her tennis as any player in the world is at her age, and obsessed with staying on track and on message.
“I think it’s a great step forward,” Fernandez said after her breakthrough victory Saturday over Bencic, “but even though I won today we still got to go back home (Boynton Beach, Florida), start from zero, start from scratch and make the adjustment needed to play another player in a WTA tournament.”
After getting used to Andreescu and her success last year, Canadian tennis fans may have another prodigy to follow, one who is just as personable and modest off the court as she is dynamic and driven on it.
While the weather wasn’t particularly hospitable at home, especially in Montreal, things could not have been better in Biel at the tennis or in Solothurn where the Canadian team stayed. Every day from Wednesday on was sunny with temperatures getting close to 10 degrees and with no wind at all – as is obvious in the glassy surface of Aare River in Solothurn in the picture above.