Two Canadians played their hearts out on the famed Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros on Sunday, both stretching their opponents to the limit but only one survived to advance and play in the next round.

Leylah Annie Fernandez again showed her amazing fighting spirit to overcome Amanda Anisimova 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 while Félix Auger-Aliassime performed heroically only to succumb to a last-minute push by the greatest player in French Open history, Rafael Nadal, by the score of 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

Fernandez needed an hour and 54 minutes while Auger-Aliassime played four hours and 21 minutes, until close to 8:30 p.m., before the 13-time champion Spaniard recorded his 109th victory at Roland Garros, where he has dominated a single Grand Slam event unlike anyone in the history of the sport.

In his on-court interview after the match, Nadal said about Auger-Aliassime, “he’s a great player without a doubt, one of the best players of the world – very young with a lot of power, great mobility. And for me (he) was a very tough opponent today. He did a lot of things well. He’s been improving every year.”

Nadal, who was sporting during the match, applauding Auger-Aliassime’s frequently brilliant shots, also added, “he’s a great guy and a good colleague on the tour.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

The match began well for Auger-Aliassime as he broke Nadal to lead 3-1 and twice, in games three and five of the first set, managed to save three break points in each – the second time from love-40. Another break to 5-1 and that pretty much sealed the set.

In the second set, after he survived a three-deuce game at 1-all, Nadal finally got the break to 5-3 and served it out to 6-3.

He carried his momentum into the third set to win it 6-2 as Auger-Aliassime had a slight lapse and then the 21-year-old from Montreal returned the favour in set four as Nadal dipped and he won it 6-3 and was playing inspired tennis – unquestionably the best of his young career. He served well, at least held his own with Nadal in all-out, attacking ground strokes and volleyed with aplomb.

It all came down to the fifth set, which proceeded to 3-all with nothing separating the two men. Then Nadal held serve to love for 4-3 and astonishingly raised his level to play a fantastic game to break Auger-Aliassime to 30 on a breath-taking point. Auger-Aliassime seemed to have put away a finely-angled, cross-court backhand volley only to have Nadal desperately lunge forward and bunt a backhand into the open court with Auger-Aliassime watching in surprise and shock.

Nadal served out the match to 15 after losing the first point but following it up with a terrific second serve winner, a forehand volley winner and a break-out forehand drilled down the line to set up match point.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

“He has a huge serve and puts you under a lot of pressure,” Nadal said about Auger-Aliassime. “I was not able to push him back. At the end of the match, I felt I had to do something else. I was able to play more aggressive, go more often to the net. That made the difference without a doubt.”

A match of such high calibre and intensity, with so many sensational rallies and jaw-dropping shots, can’t really be reduced to numbers on a stats sheet. But there was one that stood out in that critical fifth set – and it has to be a disappointing one for Auger-Aliassime who showed tremendous progress as a net-rusher and volleyer during the match. Nadal was 10/11 in his net approaches while Auger-Aliassime was 7/14.

“He raised his level when he needed to,” Auger-Aliassime said about Nadal. “He was serving well in the fifth set, playing well behind the serve, being very aggressive. I think he took it even higher, one step further from 4-3. Honestly, I didn’t play a bad game. He was dictating, aggressive when he needed to and also defending really well on two points where I came to the net. So just a great game from him and then, again, he showed great composure at the end to serve for the match. I was still there trying to win, but he played really well.”

About his tennis before a super-charged, appreciative Chatrier crowd, Auger-Aliassime said, “I think my service is very good, but there are things in my game that I can improve to be more comfortable in certain moments or maybe win not just by the skin of my teeth. You have to have a comfortable win. So there are things that I can improve, but I’m proud and I have no regrets.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Summing up the 2022 clay-court season, he said, “I love playing on clay courts. Even though it’s not where I have my best results. It does me good to prove it to myself and to others that I deserve my place in the last players of a tournament like this. I hope that in the coming years I will have the opportunity to win. But it makes me very happy to have won a few matches here this year.”

It’s unfortunate the loss prevented him from reaching the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam event for the fourth time in a row – a rare feat accomplished by few except for the game’s elite champions.

Now Auger-Aliassime moves onto grass before Wimbledon and is scheduled to play in ’s-Hertogenbosch next week and Halle the following week.

P.S. For all the Uncle Toni talk before the match, neither player was asked about him after it. During the match, Toni Nadal sat in the front row of the Tribune Présidentielle near FFT president Gilles Moretton. 

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Fernandez does all the little things well on a tennis court, but it’s the one big thing that gets her through so many matches – she never gives up.

What’s important in that is that opponents know, and probably actually feel (and fear) how difficult it’s going to be to put her away. After upsetting Naomi Osaka in three sets in the third round of the 2021 US Open, experienced competitors No. 17 Angelique Kerber, No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka all succumbed in three sets to the wilful force of nature that is the teenage phenom.

On Friday, a possible similar trend began when she beat No. 14 Belinda Bencic 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 in the third round. A key turning point in that match was when the Swiss led 2-0, 40-love in the final set – on the verge of a 3-0 lead. Then Fernandez hit an amazing backhand, angled, cross-court winner. Four points later she broke serve and made it 1-2 and on her way to a comeback victory.

On Sunday, again first match in Court Philippe Chatrier, with Anisimova serving at 2-all 30-love in the third set, Fernandez hit another screamer – an angled backhand (this time a service return) winner. Three points later – two of them with her uncanny instinct for timely, expertly-placed forehands – she got the only break she would need in the final set.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Feeling the Fernandez force field, Anisimova was never quite the same after she lost serve at 2-all and the 19-year-old Montrealer has now reached her second quarterfinal in her last three Grand Slam events.

She always seems to be able to capitalize on the small margins. Even though Anisimova is six inches taller at 5-foot-11 and has a bigger serve, Fernandez actually won 57 per cent to 56 per cent for her opponent, of her first and second-serve points. She was also more efficient with break points converted – 6/10 to 4/12 for the 20-year-old American.

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

Right after the match, Fernandez in her on-court interview said, “today was a very complicated match and Amanda is a very good player, so I’m really happy I was able to fight and played well in front of you (the crowd).”

She then turned to a front-row seat and added, “and for sure in front of Thierry (French soccer legend Thierry Henry). I’m happy you were here, thanks for coming.”

Fernandez also noted about Anisimova, “I knew she would hit a lot of winners (40 to 35 for Fernandez), so it was just to accept those, stay positive, find solutions and play well.”

Interviewer Marion Bartoli then pointed out that in 2019, the year Fernandez won junior Roland Garros, Anisimova reached the semi-final of the main tournament. The 2013 Wimbledon champion then suggested her hard work had gotten her to where she is today – in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros. “Every year, even before the juniors, I’ve worked hard,” Fernandez responded. “I wanted to be here in Philippe Chatrier in front of the crowd. So I’m really happy that all the work that my father, me, my family and also my team have done – it leads to results. And I’m pleased to be able to play another match.”

Photo: Martin Sidorjak

In the quarter-finals on Tuesday, the No. 17-seeded Fernandez will face No. 59-ranked Martina Trevisan, a scrappy competitor and fellow lefthander. She defeated No. 47-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus 7-6(10), 7-5 on Sunday to reach the French Open quarter-finals for the second time (2020). Trevisan, a 28-year-old Italian, comes into the match on a nine-match winning streak after triumphing at the pre-Roland Garros WTA 250 event in Rabat, Morocco eight days ago.


“Plus ça change, plus c’est différent”

That’s a variation of an old French expression. In this case, it applies to charming old Court 2 (above) and the way it looked, compared to what has replaced it (below) – a new main tournament entrance off the Avenue de la Porte d’Auteuil.

Feature Photo: Martin Sidorjak