Photo : Martin Sidorjak
Leylah Annie Fernandez is one of the most driven women in tennis, and she’s never going to be content after a loss. But after being beaten 7-6(5), 7-5 by world No. 4 Caroline Garcia in Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open on Thursday, even she recognized that it was a loss to some extent superseded by the high performance levels of her and her opponent.
Most obvious was the fabulous serving under pressure by Garcia. “In those moments she played really well,” Fernandez said about the 29-year-old Frenchwoman. “I think she made six aces in nine break points. That’s pretty impressive. There aren’t many players that are going to do that. We both played well and it’s just a few errors I made that changed the momentum in the tiebreak. In the second set just one or two points when I wasn’t able to return her serve or I wasn’t able to finish the point.”
In that second set Fernandez worked hard to earn a set point leading 5-4 but Garcia quashed it with a 177 km/h ace. She hit an 11th and final ace to wrap up the game and then broke Fernandez to lead 6-5. In the following game, she served out the match to 30 with Fernandez missing a forehand service return to end the hour and 52-minute contest.
Set point in the 10th game of the second set for Fernandez to match point for Garcia in the 12th game went by in a flash. It was a similar situation in the first set when Fernandez led 4-0 and then 5-2 in the tiebreak. From 5-2 down, Garcia stepped up and hit four winners in five points to win a set that she later twice referred to as “robbery” because of the way Fernandez had outplayed her.
“In the first set it was sort of that I had trouble in my service games,” Garcia said, “and I wasn’t doing anything in her service games. I was down 5-2 in the tiebreak and to win it was almost a surprise. I was able to hit out at 5-2, play more aggressively on the important points. It was really important to win that set. I didn’t really have the impression that she had lost it because she started battling again in the second set when I thought she might have a little letdown. She didn’t show anything and every game was tough in the second set.”
The final stats are an indication of the quality of the match – Garcia’s winners to unforced errors ratio was 40/24 while Fernandez was 18/14. The pressure that Fernandez was able to put on Garcia’s serve, albeit with only getting one break, showed in the nine break chances she had to only three for Garcia.
“Her game is a challenge,” Garcia said about Fernandez. “It’s not the easiest for my game-style. She took a lot of time away from me. And she played a bit like I like to play – and sometimes she did it better than me today. So I’m happy to survive, and to survive in two sets. It gives me confidence and it’s an important step to have taken.”
Despite the result, it’s important progress for Fernandez. She really wasn’t her old self after returning at the 2022 National Bank Open in Toronto in August from a stress fracture on the top of her right foot suffered at the French Open in early June.
Her record at tournaments for the second half of the season was an mere 4-6 and there seemed to be a confidence and fearlessness missing in many of her matches. The old fire appears to be back at her first two events of 2023 – a third-round loss (on an indoor court) in rainy Auckland two weeks ago to the wham-bam game of belting Belgian Ysaline Bonaventure, and Thursday’s defeat to Garcia.
“I’ve made progress in a very short time since the end of the  season,” Fernandez said. “I worked very, very hard and to play against her [Garcia], and to see the opportunities that I missed, or that she played well, it gives me confidence that I’m on the right path. I’m anxious to play another match like that and to see if I’ve improved.”
Her schedule for the moment involves playing in the doubles at Melbourne Park with American veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands. They face the No. 7-seeded pairing of Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil and Zhang Shuai of China on Friday.
Beyond that in February, Fernandez will make her first trip to the Middle East for two WTA 500 events in Abu Dhabi and Qatar and then the 1000 tournament in Dubai.
She’s up to No. 36 in the live WTA rankings and certainly seems destined to be in the top 32 seeds when the next Grand Slam event rolls around in May in Paris.
FELIX AND DENIS
Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov are now the remaining Canadians in Aussie Open singles and both are in action Friday.
Seeded sixth, Auger-Aliassime will play No. 28 Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina in John Cain Arena not before 3 p.m. (11 p.m. ET Thursday).
On paper, the No. 22-ranked Shapovalov has a more daunting challenge, taking on the No. 10 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland in the 7 p.m. (3 a.m. ET) evening match in Margaret Court Arena.