The first two days of 2020 Australian Open qualifying event featured four Canadian players and nothing but wins – or just about wins.
Genie Bouchard advanced on Tuesday and she was followed by Brayden Schnur and Steven Diez on Wednesday and – almost – by Leylah Annie Fernandez.
The 17-year-old from Montreal led Patricia Maria Tig 6-2, 4-1 and had a game point on the 25-year-old Romanian’s serve when a heavy thunderstorm interrupted play, eventually postponing the match until Thursday.
Fernandez is a real buzz saw of a player. She just puts her head down and powers the ball all over the court with an almost super-human focus. She did that from the outset against Tig and the No. 7 seed in the qualifying obviously wasn’t prepared for the willowy teenager’s relentless hitting. She grew increasingly frustrated as Fernandez broke serve in the sixth and eighth games to comfortably wrap up the first set 6-2 in 35 minutes.
There was a key break to 3-1 in the second set for Fernandez, as well a hold to 4-1 and that game point when play was stopped as big, splotchy rain drops began to appear on the court.
Fernandez isn’t just about bashing the ball. She has good feel around the net and in the third game of the second set showed her touch when she won a point with a brilliant winning drop shot reply to a Tig drop shot.
On Thursday, third match back on Court 15, she will try to wrap up her first victory at a Grand Slam event. She’s the reigning French Open junior girls titleholder and is familiar with Melbourne Park’s blue Plexicushion courts after finishing as runner-up in the Aussie Open junior girls singles event 12 months ago.
Above, Fernandez walks off after the rain began to fall. It could be close to 24 hours before she is able to resume the match with Tig and she will want to maintain the same form and focus to take care of matters quickly against an experienced opponent who has played in each of the Grand Slam tournament main draws once – but has yet to go beyond the first round.
It was not a pretty picture out of the gate Wednesday for Brayden Schnur on Court 15 as he fell behind 4-0 in the opening set. But he persevered and finally earned a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 156-ranked Sebastian Ofner of Austria.
“It was really sloppy,” Schnur said describing his stumbling start. “Actually in the first game he (Ofner) played a good game to break me, I just didn’t make many first serves. He held to 2-0 and I had a break point in that game. Then I got broken again – I was serving right into the sun and I couldn’t see anything. So I think it was more unlucky. The following game I had another break point so 4-0 could have easily been 2-all. I didn’t really panic or get frustrated because I knew I was having the break point chances and I knew that the sun would pass. And if I could figure out my serve, I’d be able to turn the match around.”
Schnur’s awkward beginning included an underhand serve in the third game. “That was pretty bad,” he would admit later. “I didn’t know what to do – the sun was bad and I just panicked and thought ‘I may as well just do it.’”
He gradually found his game and a break of serve in the second set was key to his comeback. “I stayed calm, took my chances,” the 24-year-old from Pickering, Ont., said. “The sun kind of moved or went into the clouds and I was able to get off to a better start. At 3-2, I got a break and just found my serve and I was holding pretty easy.”
Summing up his win in the two-hour and four-minute match, Schnur said, “I think I managed the conditions a little bit better and I took my chances. I had a little bit of luck in that third set – the backhand I hit right on the line (in the seventh game) and the net cord that dropped my way to give me break point. I didn’t get the break on the next point but on the one after.”
The match was played at 1 p.m. after a three-hour delay because of the smoky conditions in Melbourne. “It’s not easy,” Schnur said about the poor air quality. “It feels like you smoked a cigarette or a pack of cigarettes and you haven’t had any water. My mouth is really dry and I was constantly having to spit.”
After the third game of the final set, Schnur had a visit from the trainer to deal with a hand issue. “I have some really bad blisters on my hand – right in the middle,” he said. “So it’s kind of hard to tape and it loosens up. It’s just frustrating.”
An interested spectator at the match was the 23-year-old Ofner’s Austrian compatriot Thomas Muster, a former world No. 1 and French Open champion in 1995.
Schnur’s victory over Ofner was his first in three tries in the Australian Open qualifying. On Friday, he will go for win No. 2 when he faces 25-year-old Kimmer Coppejans of Belgium. The current world No. 158, he won the French Open junior boys title in 2012.
Steven Diez took care of business right from the start in his opening-round win over No.190-ranked Darian King of Barbados. The 28-year-old Diez, who was born in Toronto but now lives in Spain, is a high-energy player and was on his game defeating King 6-2, 6-2 in an hour and 20 minutes.
Playing at 1 p.m., the temperature crossed the 30-degree mark and peaked at 36 degrees. “It was really hot and the air’s a bit better than this morning,” Diez said about playing conditions. “Starting the match the air was pretty bad and even one of the ballgirls at the beginning of the second set said she had to get off the court and leave.
“From the beginning of the match, I broke his serve and got off to a head start and I was always ahead. In the second set, from 2-all we had a few tough games and they went on my side. Today was a pretty physical match so whoever isn’t really fit won’t have a nice time out there.”
The only hiccup for Diez was when he served for the match in the final game. He got to 40-love but missed a couple of forehands and double-faulted (his only one of the match) and finally ended up needing five match points to finish off King.
He admitted to getting a little nervous. “I was even taking my water bottle between points because my mouth gets so dry,” he said. “It’s the first match of the year and no one’s really comfortable with the first points, the first games. I thought it was an ace on the first match point but it hit the net and the second match point I double-faulted (his only one). It’s really close and you know there’s some (ranking) points and a good amount of money in play [$20,000 to $32,000 (Aus) – $18,000 to $29, 250 (Can)] – and you always like to start the year with a win. I think that got to me a bit but I was able to get my head back in the game and close it out in the end.”
In the final game Diez had a discussion with the umpire when he was given a time warning. “It’s 6-2, 5-2 and 35 degrees and you’re giving me a warning,” he argued. He insisted that he had the racquet in the ‘cocked’ position about to begin his downward swing into his motion when the warning was given.
Diez spent last week in Brisbane and Sydney as a member of Team Canada at the inaugural ATP Cup event. “It was great, it was fun,” he said. “With Félix (Auger-Aliassime) and Denis (Shapovalov) it’s pretty tough to play on the team. They’re two top players they’ll be not even top-10, probably top-five in the next year or two for sure. It’s always nice to spend time with these young guys on the tour and even with Peter (Polansky) and Adil (Shamasdin). We had a great time. It was bad luck, Félix wasn’t on his best game, I think we could have done much better – we had Serbia in the quarter-finals.”
Was he able to practice while supporting his teammates? “Even the days that we played the ties, we were like four of five hours sitting down (watching the matches),” he said. “But after the ties we’d go on court and hit balls with the coach or with someone else for an hour-and-a-half or two. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to play but as the No. 3 I had to always be ready. So I kept on practicing like it was one more week of pre-season. And if I had to play I was ready – and I was ready for this week as well.”
In Friday’s second round, the 28-year-old Diez will face 29-year-old Hiroki Moriya. The Japanese currently ranks No. 212 while Diez is at a career-best No. 134. It will be a first meeting.
In other matches on Thursday, Bouchard will play No. 130-ranked Maddison Inglis of Australia on Court 3 in the fifth match later in the day, while Peter Polansky is finally making his debut – in his 40th Grand Slam qualifying event – against No. 226 Alexandre Muller of France in the second match on Court 5. .
Incidentally, Fernandez, just 16 years old, defeated Inglis, then ranked No. 369, 6-3, 6-7(5), 7-6(3) in an ITF 25K event in Canberra, Australia, last March and 6-3, 6-4 in Granby last July.
This is a shot from Federation Square, the cultural meeting place in central Melbourne. Here, a couple of guys watch hungry seagulls doing their business on the remains of a watermelon.