Photo : Mauricio Paiz
All three Canadians in action on Saturday advanced to the third round at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. Félix Auger-Aliassime defeated Pedro Martinez 7-6(5), 6-4, Leylah Annie Fernandez outplayed Emma Navarro 6-2, 6-4 and Bianca Andreescu took the long route to victory but came out a winner in the end over Peyton Stearns by a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 score.
The Andreescu match had the most potential to get complicated against the American wild card Stearns, mainly because she dropped the first set to the 2022 NCAA champion from the University of Texas.
Struggling to find form, she wasn’t at her best and didn’t seem able to get untracked and counter her 21-year-old opponent. The No. 126-ranked Stearns is a good athlete who was at her free-swinging best in taking the opening set. The second set went on serve to 2-all, with Stearns looking to have a real chance for the upset. But Andreescu broke to 3-2 and held the rest of the way to wrestle back control of the match. In the third set she showed her pedigree. Stearns, accumulating more unforced errors, played as if she felt the pressure of a superior opponent across the net, even if that opponent wasn’t playing at her top level.
Both players were dealing with seriously windy conditions, which didn’t help their performance. And Andreescu was getting so bothered by gusts that were affecting her skirt that she changed after the first set – just wearing her bike shorts the rest of the way (see below).
“She played really smart,” Andreescu said about Stearns. “She was putting pressure on my forehand so I had to get my rhythm a little bit. I was definitely anxious in the first set but I was able to cool down and get my thoughts in order. I started playing more to her backhand side, and she’s super-steady on the backhand too. But I think that helped a little bit – starting off the point on the backhand.”
Being able to stay out in Stadium 3 for two hours and 24 minutes suggested that her recently troublesome shoulder is no longer an issue. “Nothing, nothing is bothering me – we’re good,” Andreescu smiled. “There’s been a lot of shoulder exercises and I actually see a difference in the strength on my serve shoulder-wise. Sometimes I have to control myself because I’m so excited because usually I don’t usually hit over 105 (mph) but today I was hitting like 113 pretty consistently.”
Her third-round match-up on Monday will be against No. 1 ranked Iga Świątek. They have only played once – the 21-year-old Pole winning 7-6(2), 6-0 on clay in Rome in 2022. “That match I think I had a great first set,” Andreescu recalled. “It was like my third tournament back after being off for so long. I don’t really count that as much – and this is hard court which I prefer. Hopefully that goes in my favour but I know she’s gonna play amazing. I’m going to prepare well, going to have a good practice tomorrow (Sunday) and study her as much as I can.”
While there were some ups and down in the Andreescu – Stearns match, they were insignificant compared to the first set of Auger-Aliassime versus the No. 140-ranked Martinez. Mainly there were the remarkable 15 break-point chances it took in the first set before Auger-Aliassime could finally crack the Spaniard’s serve. That predicament largely originated from him putting himself behind the eight ball by losing his very first serve of the match – finishing it ingloriously with a pair of double faults.
He did finally break through on the 15th try with a backhand pass down-the-line to level the set at 5-all. And it wasn’t as if Martinez was that inspired in saving all the break points, often it was effectual play by Auger-Aliassime or a bit of bad luck, a shot missing by mere millimeters.
Auger-Aliassime wound up taking the set in a close tiebreak and hung in the second set until he broke Martinez in the penultimate game. He then served out, ending matters on his second match point.
Martinez might have saved himself having to defend so many break points if he had a more potent serve to allow him to hold more comfortably. The 25-year-old Spaniard had zero aces to ten for Auger-Aliassime during the two-hour and 25-minute contest.
“It was a first,” Auger-Aliassime laughed about all the break points in one set, “and there are so many firsts as players. There are so many possible situations on a tennis court. I did start to play a little better in the second game but at a certain point it does start to feel like a curse. I told myself that at least I was creating chances. It’s not so bad, even if you don’t manage to convert. If it’s not in the first set, it’ll come in the second set so I was like ‘stay calm, there’s still a lot of tennis to play.’ I still believed all the way to 5-4, continued to think I could turn around the first set.”
Did the thought ever cross his mind about the fact that he had lost his previous three matches in Indian Wells? “I did think about that a little bit before the match – a bit as a motivation,” he said. “It’s the first round of a Masters 1000 and I haven’t won a match here since 2019 even though it’s a tournament I like. The conditions were a bit different – it was windy. It wasn’t easy on serve or return to control the ball. But actually I did have that extra reason to want to win today.”
Like many of the players, Auger-Aliassime enjoys being in Indian Wells. “The surroundings are magnificent – when you can look at the mountains with the light on them, it’s special,” he said. “Of all the places where we play, there isn’t any other one like here. The tournament has been organized so it fits with the feeling of the area – with the flowers and the lawn where all the players warm up. It’s creates a great image, and as players we appreciate that.”
In the third round on Monday Auger-Aliassime will play No. 32-ranked Francisco Cerundolo. Their only previous meeting was at the Australian Open in January and Auger-Aliassime beat the 24-year-old Argentine 6-1, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the third round.
He is also in the doubles draw with Denis Shapovalov and they play their second round on Sunday.
A fellow traveller on the tour with Shapovalov since their childhood junior days, Auger-Aliassime has feelings for him and the struggles he’s having in singles at the moment.
“I have a lot of empathy for him,” he said about Shapovalov. “The tennis circuit is completely different when you go through a period when you’re not winning many matches. I went through that last year, even if it was a super year. From Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo – I lost three first rounds in a row. It’s not fun – you practice hard and try to do the right things. Everything becomes a little dark and there’s a sense of doom. Life on the tour and everyday life just isn’t the same. So I have a lot of empathy for him. I hope he’ll take the time before Miami to train and have a good tournament there. And I hope that we can keep playing doubles here this week.”
Fernandez, seeded No. 30, jumped out quickly to a 5-1 lead in the first set against the No. 128-ranked Navarro. After that the only real uncertainty about the outcome was when the 21-year-old American wild card took a 3-0 lead in the second set. Though there were moments of competitive balance, Fernandez simply hit harder with better angles and was a superior mover. She quickly regained control to win six of the final seven games to close out the win.
The victory sets up an intriguing third round against world No. 5 Caroline Garcia – a chance for Fernandez to avenge her loss to the Frenchwoman in the second round of the 2023 Australian Open.
Despite the one-sided score, Fernandez wasn’t thrilled with her performance against Navarro. “Today [Saturday] was hard because the nerves came into play,” she said. “I’ve been here for a whole week. I didn’t think I was going to be seeded. I thought I was going to play earlier this week [possibly as early as Wednesday]. I got extra training days but in the first round there’s those nerves that didn’t help me. I was glad that in the important moments I was able to play the game that I wanted.”
Fernandez has an 9-5 record so far this year but probably hasn’t had the results she may have deserved because of some tough draws. She chose to play the middle-eastern events in Doha (lost to No. 19 Karolina Pliskova) and in Dubai (lost to No. 1 Iga Swiatek) instead of returning as two-time defending champion to Monterrey, Mexico earlier this month. She subsequently lost the (250) Monterrey points, resulting in her ranking tumbling to No. 49.
“There’s always a saying that my dad has told me,” she said. “‘Fair is unfair and unfair is fair.’ I’m very happy where my tennis at the moment. Of course the draw(s) haven’t been too kind to me. But that comes with experience and I’m also glad that I got those draws because I’m able to see what I need to improve and how hard I need to work. I’m still able to see the positive side of things instead of being down on myself.”
Asked what it feels like to see the number No. 49 beside her name in the WTA rankings, Fernandez replied, “it hurts but I think it’s just like another mountain to climb. I’ve lost the points from Monterrey but it has giving me the opportunity to keep learning, to keep growing. 49 is just a number and there’s a lot more to do this year. I do have goals I want to achieve.”
Her career high ranking was No. 13 in August last year.
As for facing Garcia again on Monday, referring to her 7-6(5), 7-5 loss to the 29-year-old Frenchwoman at Melbourne Park, Fernandez said, “I think I just have to go for my shots a little bit more. But it was a great match we played. I’ll have to talk with my coaches and see what I can do different.”