Leylah Annie Fernandez and Félix Auger-Aliassime will both make their first appearances in the Roland Garros round-of-16 after impressive victories on Friday.
Fernandez survived a roller-coaster, two-hour and 48-minute thriller with 14th-seeded Belinda Bencic, winning 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, while Auger-Aliassime took a more direct route in his 7-6(3), 7-6(2) 7-5 victory over Filip Krajinovic.
If Auger-Aliassime never really looked like losing to the No. 69-ranked Krajinovic, Fernandez needed all her tenacity and grit to extricate herself from a string of dicey situations against Bencic.
She started the match well, quickly taking a 3-0 lead but was soon caught at 3-all by the 25-year-old Swiss.
Bencic and Fernandez were having spectacular rallies, with Fernandez leaning on her ground-stroke magic to find acute angles off both sides, as well as that uncanny ability to wrong-foot her opponents. Bencic, the 2020 Olympic gold medallist in Tokyo, is a crafty hitter who takes the ball early and controls rallies with her varied, artful ball-striking.
Mid first set, she started controlling more rallies and eventually got to 40-15 – double set point at 5-4 – only to miss with a forehand and then a backhand as the nerves crept into her game. Then a pair of deep Fernandez service returns earned her the break and the score was even at 5-5.
That reinvigorated Fernandez and she started the 11th game with a well-struck backhand volley winner, reasserting herself and soon was able to close out the first set 7-5.
She had a point for 2-0 in the second set but, as seemed to be the normal course of twists and turns in the match, Bencic revived and was soon ahead 3-1. She was able to use that push to continue and win in the second set, breaking Fernandez to love to finish it off.
The third set was an up-and-down merry-go-round of momentum. Bencic, riding the wave of winning the second set, seemed destined for victory when she jumped ahead 2-0 and led 40-love on her serve. A Fernandez backhand, cross-court winner at an amazing angle kick-started a run of five points in a row that enabled her to make the score-line a more manageable 1-2.
Avoiding that 0-3 deficit set the tone for the rest of the match. Fernandez had her mojo back and gradually gained a competitive edge with her superior ball-striking.
She held to 2-all, broke serve to 4-3, and eventually served for the match at 5-4 – only to falter. She double-faulted to give Bencic a break point which she then converted on a Fernandez backhand error.
It could have been a moment for Fernandez to get down and discouraged. But she did the opposite and dominated the last two games – winning the final one to love.
It was a classic display of Fernandez playing at her unrelenting, aggressive best – and surely at, or close to, the level of her Cinderella run to the US Open final last year. “I think today I was just trusting my game when it mattered the most,” she said. “I’m just glad that I was able to trust it enough for me to keep going and keep executing the game plan.”
Her determination and intensity evoked Flushing Meadows ’21, and she spoke about the fallout of that remarkable fortnight. “I think after the first few (post-US Open) tournaments,” she said, “I accepted that I will not be playing the same way every single time. I will just have to find solutions and keep working hard. Over the course of the year I have just been sticking to that, just putting my head down and just grinding it out every day. I’m just glad that this week it’s been showing. I’ve been showing some good tennis. I’ve just been improving.”
On Sunday, Fernandez faces 20-year-old Amanda Anisimova of the U.S., a 2019 French Open semi-finalist at age 17. They played in Indian Wells in March with Fernandez winning 2-6, 7-6(0), ret. when an emotionally-fragile Anisimova (she had just split with coach Darren Cahill) retired after failing to convert four match points – including three in a row serving at 5-4, 40-love in the second set.
The match against Anisimova showcases two players who swing from the hip. Whoever doesn’t get in the first strike will likely find themselves chasing the point.
“She’s been deep into tournaments a lot this year, so I know she’s going to be a tough player,” said Fernandez, 19, about Anisimova. “I unfortunately did not play many matches against her in the juniors, but I do remember watching her playing. And what she did is nothing less than incredible.”
And finally – talk about prescient words two days ago after she lost to Bencic, Bianca Andreescu saying about Fernandez’s chances against the experienced Swiss, “my game plan was to stay aggressive right from the start. So I think if she can do that, and just fight until the end. Then I think she can win.”
IT’S ON – that was all the talk as soon as Auger-Aliassime dispatched Krajinovic to set up an intriguing match-up with 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal on Sunday.
Summing up the contest with Krajinovic – Auger-Aliassime was always a step ahead. The fact that he won 29 of his 33 first-serve points in the opening set against the 30-year-old Serb is testimony to that. Auger-Aliassime dominated both tiebreaks and his only shaky moment was when he lost serve in the third game of the final set – finishing it with consecutive double faults.
Krajinovic is a fine tennis player with fluid attacking strokes on both sides, but Auger-Aliassime could usually call on an extra gear with his aggressive ground game. It wasn’t a surprise when he broke twice in Krajinovic’s last three service games to wrap up the three-hour encounter in front of a jammed-pack, pro-Félix crowd on Court 14.
A measure of Auger-Aliassime’s domination – his winners to unforced errors ratio was 58/33 while Krajinovic was 39/34.
Post match, all the talk was about Sunday and Nadal – and especially about Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and long-time coach who’s now part of Team Auger-Aliassime along with long-time mentor Frenchman Frédéric Fontang.
Auger-Aliassime said he had not spoken to Toni about what his situation would be vis a vis Sunday’s match-up but he suggested, “we had the discussion. It was black and white from the first time we started working together we knew it was a possibility that eventually I would play Rafa when I’m working with Toni. And actually now he’s present here in this Grand Slam. But I think Toni will watch from a neutral place and enjoy the match.”
As for Rafael, he said about his uncle Toni, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen, if he’s gonna stay in the box or not. But I don’t care. I have zero problem with that. So it’s not a story at all for me. I know what’s the feelings that we have between each other.
“I know he wants the best for me. Now he’s helping another player. But honestly, for me, it’s zero problem. I know he wants the best for me.”
Specifically, about Toni’s effect on his tennis, Auger-Aliassime said, “we
didn’t approach only one thing in my game. But of course, I think more of my baseline game than, let’s say, my serve and my volley. We don’t work these things as much.
“I have powerful shots naturally. But for me, the challenge all my youth actually was always to control that power and racquet speed. So I think with Toni, we have been able now with movement and footwork, my game is more solid and precise.”
Nadal and Auger-Aliassime have played once before – on clay in Madrid in 2019 with the 35-year-old Spaniard winning 6-3, 6-3. “I have good memories, but also not feeling like I played the best I could have played,” Auger-Aliassime said about that second-round encounter. “It was like his first match in a while. So it was a bit tense to start. I was serving well. I remember I had two good starts of both sets, but eventually throughout the set I just, as a young player, felt a lot of pressure to hold my serve. I started forcing my shots a little too much and forcing my targets. He took advantage of it. As soon as he broke me, he raised his level and gained confidence. At the time he just played much better than me on that given day. I think I’m a much different player than I was three years ago.”
Nadal prefers to play during the day and he has already been part of a night session – on Wednesday against Frenchman Corentin Moutet – so the Auger-Aliassime match it is likely to be during the day.
About getting ready to take on a living legend of tennis, Auger-Aliassime said, “you try your best and you try and find ways throughout the match. But nobody, Toni, Fred, or me has the answers to just win. It’s up to me, at the end of the day, when I come on the court to try to find solutions.”
INCOMPARABLE ROLAND GARROS & PARIS
The Roland Garros poster (affiche en francais) was introduced in 1980 and involved commissioning an artist associated with a prominent Parisian gallery.
Located on a wall near the ‘Boutique Roland Garros’ at the south end of the grounds, the posters above are from 1980 to 1984 and 2001 to 2004.
Below are 1990 to 1994 and 2010 to 2014 posters. Of note, the second from the left in the top row (1991) is from the work of posthumous famed Spanish artist Joan Miro and was not done expressly for Roland Garros. It’s also the only poster that was not available to the public on T-shirts – only to players and some tournament officials.