When she was practising in Florida last month before going to Australia, Leylah Annie Fernandez’s efforts were focused on the 2020 qualifying at Melbourne Park.
“It’s really special for me,” she said yesterday after qualifying with a 7-5, 7-5 victory over No. 198-ranked Danielle Lao of the U.S. “During the pre-season I thought about qualifying for the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament and I’m happy to have reached one of my goals for this year, and to continue and maybe make the top-100 and maybe a little more.”
The 28-year-old Lao, a product of the University of Southern California, is a crafty, veteran player who likes to use a sliced backhand to neutralize and extend rallies. It was the second match in a row for Fernandez against a mainly non-aggressive/rallying-type player. In the second round Friday, she overcame the similar style of Mayo Hibi of Japan 6-4, 6-4.
“It did actually,” she responded when asked if that had helped her. “Last round my opponent did a lot of slices and I guess I was a little bit ready for that today. She (Lao) came in with the same tactics and so yesterday helped me a lot.”
Fernandez, 17 years and four months old, is strong-willed and ambitious in a way that only a teenager can be. She plays the game with a feral fixation on being aggressive – although that doesn’t mean she won’t vary her tactics.
During Saturday’s two-hour and 10 minute match on Court 5, she had 40 winners to 19 for Lao and her break-point conversion rate was 6/19 compared to 4/9 for her opponent.
There were a few patches when Fernandez seemed to lose her way and unforced errors crept into her game. But it never lasted long and she was always able to snap back and start punishing her ground strokes in rhythm again.
A lapse like that happened in the first set as she led 4-2 and 5-3 but allowed Lao back to 5-all before she closed it out 7-5 in 59 minutes.
She was under even greater pressure in the second set, which turned Lao’s way at 5-3 on a break of serve in the eighth game. Matters got serious in the following game as Lao reached set point three times but on each occasion Fernandez played boldly – especially the second one when she clocked an outright inside/out forehand winner off a deep, high bouncing ball.
She held serve to 5-all and then the pressure seemed to get to Lao as she double-faulted to give Fernandez the break to 6-5. In the final game, she held serve and then shared a handshake, and a post-handshake (below) with Lao.
“Overall my game wasn’t that good today,” said Fernandez, who won all her qualifying matches in straight sets. “But I was happy I was able to be stronger in those important moments and that I got the win.”
About saving those set points, she described her approach as, “I try to stay positive and calm myself down. I try not to put more effort into them than I need to. It’s just to get one more ball back”
Leylah (the name comes from a flower, a leila, that her Filipino mother liked but chose to write as Leylah) and mother Irene, Ecuadorian father Jorge and sister Bianca Jolie, who turns 16 next month, moved to Boynton Beach, Florida, from Montreal in the fall of 2018. In the off season Fernandez trained there, at least on days when the weather permitted.
“Sometimes I practiced with players in the top 100, top-150,” she said. “It helps me a lot and the coaches are there too to help me. I practiced a few times with (No. 65-ranked) Lauren Davis – she’s in the top-100 – and (No. 52) Ajla Tomljanovic (Australia) and also (No. 294) Anna Danilina (Kazakhstan).
So…drum roll…who does she play in the first round on Tuesday?…the diminutive 5-foot-2 Davis from Gates Mills, Ohio. Lao is only 5-foot-3 and Friday’s opponent Hibi is 5-foot-5, so Fernandez, who’s not that tall herself, will have faced three players she can at least see eye-to-eye with in a sport with so many athletes nudging the six-foot range nowadays.
The most important driving force in her career has been her father who has said that that Yuri Sharapov (father of Maria) and Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena) have been inspirations for him. “I have maybe 60 percent of what other coaches know,” he said in a 2019 documentary on Radio-Canada, “but I know my 60 percent 100 percent.”
At the moment he’s back home with Bianca, who has an ITF junior ranking of No. 531. “He’s doing a good job with my younger sister in Florida,” Fernandez explained, “he’s training her. Now it’s her turn. So hopefully we’re both going to be in the Grand Slams soon.”
Working with her as coach in Melbourne is Romain Deridder, a Frenchman from Grenoble. “He’s here and he really focuses on my game,” Fernandez said. “He really understands what my dad and I want. He’s really helping me. We both want the same thing – we want to be in the top-100 in the WTA and we both want to win. I like the attitude he brings me and with my dad.”
“He allows me do everything here,” Deridder said about his relationship with papa/coach Fernandez. “Of course the three of us are in touch. We’re on the same wavelength and that’s really important so that she succeeds and so that we all succeed as a team. It’s important that we talk, that we’re on the same wavelength, that we use the same words and that we motivate her the same way. And at the moment it’s working.”
Fernandez, who has a nice feel for the ball and hit a couple of sumptuous drop shots on Saturday that Lao got nowhere near, is uncompromisingly aggressive in her on-court mindset.
“It’s her nature and in practice all we do is take the ball early,” Deridder said. “She’s not very tall and she’s not very muscular, so the main thing we have to do is take the ball early, be aggressive and use the power of the other players. Most of the WTA players are hard hitters so she uses their power to re-direct the ball and she’s very, very precise. That’s how she’s able to win her matches – be more intelligent, have a better understanding than some of the others and find the angles. That’s how she differentiates herself.”
She also differentiates herself by not bouncing the ball with her hand in her serve preparation, but instead with rapid taps off her racquet.
“I honestly don’t know,” she replied when asked about the routine. “I think from very young I felt more comfortable bouncing the ball with the racquet than with the hand – the hand kind of felt awkward. With the racquet it was so much easier and I felt more focused with it.”
By virtue of qualifying for the main draw, she’s guaranteed a minimum first-round pay cheque of $90,000 (Aus) or $80,825 (Can).
“It’s a lot of money for me,” conceded Fernandez, who comes from a modest upbringing and is not one for extravagances. “I don’t like shopping, to be honest. I just don’t really enjoy going shopping. Maybe I’ll just give a little present to my parents and to my coaches.”
Milos Raonic, who has played only five matches since August and missed the US Open with a glute injury, says he’s fit for the first Grand Slam tournament of the year. He comes off an injury-plagued season when his ranking stagnated in the No. 31 – No. 32 range. His current No. 35 only got him the final No. 32 seeded position when Aussie Alex de Minaur withdrew with an abdominal injury.
The 29-year-old Raonic plays No. 48-ranked Radu Albot, a plucky 5-foot-9 Moldovan, in the first round. When jokingly asked if, at 6-foot-5, it was hard to play someone he towers over, Raonic smiled and said, “it’s more not having known him much the last few years. We played in Eddie Herr (the Florida junior tournament) in the under-18s. That’s the last time I remember. We’ve practiced a few times.
“I haven’t played many matches so for me it’s important to get my game in order and find the confidence and assurances through that. Over the last few years there’s been a lot of start and stop and thankfully the last couple of weeks I’ve been able to consistently train. I think things can come together but I need to take care of my own things first.”
Raonic’s last match of 2019 was a second-round 7-6(5), 5-7, 6-4 loss to Dominic Thiem at the Paris Indoors on October 30. Since then he has spent some time rehabbing in Boston. “Since the Australian Open last year, I’ve had back spasms that I was dealing with,” he said. “I was working on that for a while – didn’t hit any serves or anything overhead til about the first week of December. I tried to take care of that and now it’s under control.”
Asked about the groin problem he had during Laver Cup in Geneva in September, he said, “I tore my adductor and I was told the season was over for me – that I was going to be out five weeks and that I wasn’t going to come back and play one tournament (Paris) sort of risking it. And then I started doing rehab and it started progressing quicker than I thought. These people (physios) were helping me out so I went back to them in Boston to try to get my back under control so I could train consecutively after.”
About the Australian Open, where he was a semi-finalist in 2016, Raonic said, “I like it here. It’s the beginning of the year. I’m not carrying many things with my body. I’ve had time to really focus on that for a few weeks. Most of the other times I’ve had more matches than I’ve had this time around. But I’m in the situation I’m in and just trying to make the most of it. Thankfully I’ve trained well and hopefully I can make it count.”
The Albot first-round match is scheduled on the low-rent side of the Australian Open grounds – Court 19 to be exact. It will be after a women’s match following an 11 a.m. start (7 p.m. ET Sunday in Canada) on Monday.
St. Kilda Beach is a bay-side (Port Phillip Bay) community which really comes to life in the Australian summer. Here some musicians perform in a lane off the main drag – Acland Avenue – with a young woman swaying around to the beat.