Photo : Jordan Leigh
Leylah Annie Fernandez is no stranger to high-pressure situations.
One of the scrappiest fighters on the WTA circuit, the Canadian is known for her never-say-die attitude, which was on full display as she played the hero on Saturday at the Billie Jean King Cup.
A thrilling comeback win in singles followed by a clutch doubles victory with Gabriela Dabrowski clinched Canada’s spot in November’s Finals. It’s the second year in a row that Fernandez did the heavy lifting for her country in Vancouver.
For the Laval-native, having the weight of the country on her shoulders did not affect her mindset at all.
“I’m always ready to play these matches. I always go out there to win so it doesn’t matter the situation,” explained Fernandez. “If it’s a dead rubber or if it’s a practice match, I want to go out there, I want to get better and I want to win. And with that mindset, that has given me the opportunity to fight, given me the opportunity to get a winning chance in matches.”
Fernandez hesitated when asked if she plays her best under pressure, which prompted Dabrowski to quip “I thought she was going to say no and was like what?” with a laugh before her teammate elaborated.
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Toughness, resilient, fighter, courageous. These were the words that Fernandez, Dabrowski and team captain Heidi El Tabakh used to describe Team Canada this weekend.
“Oh did I see it! Every single match,” said the captain of her team’s fighting spirit. “I think Gaby and Leylah both handled the pressure of the doubles extremely well and I think they played some of the best tennis I’ve ever seen, some of the best doubles I’ve ever seen. So I would say they handled it very, very well.”
Overall, competitions like the Billie Jean King Cup provide the opportunity for players, who are usually completely alone on court at regular events, to use their teammates for inspiration. While Fernandez is normally calm under pressure in her regular WTA Tour matches, she admitted that when the chips were down on Saturday, it helped having a veteran like Dabrowski out there with her.
“Gaby was so confident and that calmed my nerves. Just super happy that she’s a great partner and she’s able to take control of the court and that gives me confidence to play my game,” explained the former US Open runner-up.
Read also: Fernandez, Dabrowski send Canada into Billie Jean King Cup Finals
Dabrowski faced an awkward situation in the tie, watching the lead slip back and forth, not knowing what kind of situation she was going to walk into when it was her turn to play, if she had to play at all.
But the two-time major champion major champion said the context did not matter when the time came for her to play.
“I always just have it in my mind that I’m ready to play no matter what and I’m ready to play for all the weight to be on the match no matter what. Even if it’s a dead rubber, I still want to win and I still want to play well. I think that really helps because the entire weekend I was just like ‘I’m ready no matter what, I’m ready.’ So when it came to two-all, I was like I’m ready. I wasn’t thinking one thing or another. I think overall, when you really want to play and you want to play to win, then that really puts you in a good mindset. So I think that helped today.”
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In the opening match of the day, Fernandez found herself in a situation she is fairly familiar with, down a set and a break in the second set.
“I lost my service game but I didn’t think much of it, I knew I was able to come back,” said Fernandez. “In the first, I got down 3-0. I think I finally settled down in the game even though the score wasn’t going my way. I just felt like ‘OK things are turning around’ and then in the second set, same thing. I was just trying to enjoy myself.”
That last point, trying to enjoy herself, was critical for Fernandez and was something a keen-eyed observer may have even noticed.
“I told myself just smile so I started smiling a little bit a couple times and that definitely helped me,” explained Fernandez. “Once I started smiling a little bit and then just thinking of playing as if I was practicing because I do enjoy myself when I’m practicing. I do some drop shots and higher balls and once I started doing that everything was clicking and my mind was clear and I was able to figure things out from there.”
That smile ended up being critical to her victory. “Today was more of smiling and instead of thinking of a gameplan and trying to execute the gameplan. It was more that mindset of smile, enjoy, be positive and that helped.”
Now Fernandez is smiling all the way to November’s Billie Jean King Cup Finals.