Photo : Martin Sidorjak
It seems unlikely that after four years on tour, a career-high ranking of No. 13 (2022) and a runner-up finish at the 2021 US Open, that Leylah Annie Fernandez had never won a match (0-3) at the Australian Open.
She checked that off the list on Tuesday with a 7-5, 6-2 victory over Alizé Cornet on Court 3 (picture above). The other Canadian in action – in 14,820-seat Rod Laver Arena – was Katherine Sebov and she left the tournament’s main stadium having lost 6-3, 6-0 to No. 4 seed Caroline Garcia.
After rallying from a 3-1 deficit and some iffy play at the outset, Fernandez settled down and was clearly the superior player against Cornet. She hit harder with superior placement and generally dominated the 32-year-old Frenchwoman, who extended her record consecutive Grand Slam tournament appearance streak to 64.
It seemed as if Fernandez was always on the verge of breaking the match open when she was at 30-all on Cornet’s serve several times. But either a lapse by her or a timely shot by the Frenchwoman kept the match competitive. It wasn’t until she ran off the final four games that Fernandez was able to pull away and close out the hour and 41-minute encounter.
“There are so many things that I could have done sooner,” Fernandez admitted, “but I think first matches are always hard. It’s the first round of a Grand Slam, of the first Grand Slam of the year. Nerves are there, and I was just trying to get my rhythm of the match again. I haven’t played a match for over a week, so it’s not easy.”
The next match she plays will be on Thursday against a quality opponent in Garcia – a 29-year-old who made a spectacular jump in the WTA rankings from No.74 to No. 4 last year – including winning the year-end WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas.
Garcia has attributed that advance to heeding the advice of coaches and committing to totally going for her shots, playing flat-out aggressive tennis.
Asked about the challenge of facing the Frenchwoman, Fernandez said, “I think it’s just accepting the fact that she will attack me. She’s very offensive and takes the ball really, really early. It won’t be easy so I just have to get used to the speed and impose my game.”
It will be the first meeting between the two. For her part, Garcia commented about Fernandez, “I don’t know her that well. At first I used to play a bit with her in practice but not lately. She’s played well in Grand Slams, notably at the (2021) US Open. She likes to take the ball early and use her forehand. And if she beat Alizé, that means she’s pretty solid because we all know the record Alizé has in Grand Slams. It’ll be a super match. It’s tough for a second round but it’s a good challenge and you need those to go far in tournaments.”
Garcia vs Fernandez is definitely one of the early highlight clashes of the women’s event and should be showcased in one of Melbourne Park’s main stadiums. Garcia said she was surprised to be scheduled in Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday, getting her first ever win on that court.
Fernandez has a new member of her coaching team in Julian Alonso – a 45-year-old Spaniard who ranked as high as No. 30 in 1998 and was known for having a big serve, and at the time for squiring then tennis “it girl’ Martina Hingis.
“We were looking for a coach to be added to the team to work with my dad,” Fernandez said. “To kind of expand it in a way that he can travel with me and my dad can travel with my younger sister (Bianca Jolie), because she’s also in tennis trying to fight her way into this sport. I think Julian is a great addition to the team. He understands our values, understands our philosophy. I think the thing that he’s contributing is his experience as a player and as a coach, because he’s worked with various top athletes.”
Asked about trying to return Alonso’s serve, Fernandez smiled and replied, “it’s hard. Sometimes I just have to close my eyes and hope for the best.”
Tennis followers know about the intensity and steely concentration of Fernandez, so her answer to a question on Tuesday, about whether the mental or the physical is more important for a player, was no surprise. She said, “I saw a video a couple years ago that talks about coaches. I think they were asked the same question. For me, the answer is that the mental to the physical is three to one. Mental is extremely important.
“I’m very grateful that my parents, especially my dad, has reinforced that. Hasn’t really taught me about tennis or tennis technique but more of the mental side of the sport. Because it’s hard. You’re all alone out there on court. Most of the time you don’t have a coach with you or the coach can’t talk to you during the points. I’m like – you have to figure some things out, you have to be your own cheerleader, your own biggest critic, your own biggest supporter.”
Players ride waves of confidence and form as Fernandez did to the 2021 US Open final, and as Garcia did to win the championship of the WTA Finals in November. Speaking with French reporters Tuesday about carrying over her form from the WTA Finals, which included straight-set wins over No. 4-ranked Coco Gauff, No. 5 Maria Sakkari and No. 7 Arnya Sabalenka, Garcia said, “I don’t think it’s possible to continue on the dynamic of the WTA Finals. There’s been holiday time, the training period. There are lots of things that change and evolve, I can’t say I’m trying to surf on that dynamic. But just to take all the positives I had during the end of the season – the game style, the intensity and the mentality, and really keep those. I know I have the level of play to beat the best and do big things. Concentrate on those things and take the tournament match by match and see how I can keep improving my game.”
Against Sebov on Tuesday that game got off to a bit of a slow start but once she broke serve to lead 5-3 in the first set, it had pretty well attained cruising speed. Her attacking style was obvious in the match stats – 22 winners to one for Sebov.
“It was definitely a unique experience,” Sebov said about playing in Rod Laver Arena, “I’ve never really been in an atmosphere like that before with that many people watching, and not just live but on TV as well. It was an amazing experience. I really enjoyed it.”
While saying that she wished she had played a little better, and particularly given herself more space to deal with Garcia’s big shots, Sebov leaves the 2023 Australian Open with a good vibe. “This experience meant a whole lot to me, just to qualify and to even win the first round of qualifying was huge for me because I’d never ever done anything like that before. Every time I came to a Slam before I was very nervous and I felt like ‘do I belong here or not?’ This is the first time I feel that ‘yes, I do belong’ with this pool of players. It means a lot for me to get this far and I can go even further. You’ll definitely see a lot more of me.”
For the immediate future, it looks like Sebov will be playing the qualifying at a WTA 250 event in Thailand in two weeks.
About what kind of swag from the tournament she will leave AusOpen ’23 with, Sebov said that she received a bottle of champagne after she qualified.
She couldn’t think of anything else of note, and was asked if she had a taste for champagne. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered 24-year-old from Toronto said that she did not…then added, “I prefer Tequila.”