leylah fernandez faa wave to crowd

Leylah Fernandez and Félix Auger-Aliassime won their opening-round matches at the US Open on Monday, but not before confronting some dicey situations.

Fernandez fended off two set points in the first set on her way to a 7-6(3), 6-2 victory over big-hitting Croat Ana Konjuh while Auger-Aliassime needed a bold backhand winner to avoid going to a fifth set against resilient Russian Evgeny Donskoy, prevailing 7-6(0), 3-6, 7-6(1), 7-6(8).

The third Canadian in action, Rebecca Marino, was beaten 6-2, 6-3 by an in-form No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina.

Photo : camerawork usa

Konjuh, a No. 88-ranked qualifier who would probably be much higher but for four elbow surgeries, including a major re-construction, is one of the heaviest hitters on the WTA Tour. A US Open quarter-finalist at 18 in 2016, she was regularly hitting serves over 115 mph in the first set on Court 14 against a game Fernandez doing her best to absorb and counter.

The Fernandez speed and tenacity finally got to Konjuh when she served for the set at 5-4 – forcing errors by using her exceptional movement and retrieving skills.

That service break and failing to convert the set points, seemed to hit Konjuh hard, especially after Fernandez was able to jump out to a 5-0 lead in the eventual tiebreak. It carried over into the second set as the 18-year-old world No. 73 built a 4-0 lead on the way to reaching the second round for the second year in a row. Fernandez actually had one more winner (23-22) than Konjuh but it was the unforced errors gap that separated the two – 27 for Fernandez to 38 for the 23-year-old Konjuh, the precocious winner of the Australian Open junior title at just 15 in 2013.

Photo : camerawork usa

“The first set I was just trying to stay positive,” Fernandez told TSN after the match. “I wasn’t playing my best but I was doing some things well and every return game I was getting closer and closer to that break. I was staying positive. I was just happy at 4-5 that I was able to take my opportunity and from then on I was just playing better.”

Photo : camerawork usa

Facing a power player like Konjuh will be excellent preparation for Fernandez’s opponent in the second round, Kaia Kanepi. The 36-year-old Estonian upset No. 31 seed Yulia Putintseva 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 on Monday. She’s playing in her 52nd Grand Slam – having reached US Open quarter-finals in 2010 and 2017 – and is known for knocking off top players but then seldom carrying through to the later stages of major events. She’s the kind of opponent that two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep has said she dreads seeing anywhere close to her when she looks at a tournament draw.

It will be a first meeting between No. 73-ranked Fernandez and No. 70 Kanepi. The physically imposing, 5-foot-11 Estonian has ranked as high as No. 15 in 2012.  

Photo : camerawork usa

Auger-Aliassime got a surprisingly tough test from No. 152-ranked qualifier Donskoy who, at times, was flailing forehand winners like he was the second coming of Roger Federer. In the first set, Auger-Aliassime faced no break points before proceeding to stampede through the tiebreak 7-0, seemingly on his way to a straight-forward win over the 31-year-old Russian. Donskoy ranked as high as No. 65 in 2013 but has not won a main draw match in the last nine Grand Slam events he has entered.

Still, he has always been a gifted, shot-maker and showed that in capitalizing on some sloppy Auger-Aliassime play to take the second set.

Photo : camerawork usa

The critical mass of the match shifted dramatically when Donskoy served for the third set at 5-4. Level at 30-all, the players engaged in consecutive backhand-to-backhand, cross-court duels and Auger-Aliassime got the best of both with aggressive yet disciplined ball-striking to break serve. Back to 5-all and fired up, he soon won the set in another tiebreak, which he again dominated – taking 4-0 and 6-1 leads.

He carried his improved level into the fourth set but Donskoy, who looked weary and haggard at the end of the third, soldiered on and forced another tiebreak. This one was anything but one-sided and the game Russian engineered a set point leading 8-7. But Auger-Aliassime produced a brilliant, measured backhand down-the-line winner to save it. Two points later he had the match at exactly the four-hour mark when Donskoy skied a backhand high and out of court.

Photo : camerawork usa

The 2,800-seat Court 17 – arguably the best court for viewing at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center – is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The ambiance Monday there was raucous with the crowd decidedly pro the 21-year-old Canadian.

“It was crazy, the atmosphere was insane,” said a hyped-up Auger-Aliassime right after the match on court. “I was really looking forward to play in front of the fans again. To have everyone show up at 11 a.m. on a Monday – packed crowd – being loud. It was an amazing atmosphere – what a fight it was. He really made me dig deep. That’s for sure.”

About the tiebreaks, Auger-Aliassime explained, “I had a lot of chances in the first set, and when that happens usually you’re able to win more points on your return in the tiebreak. And so I did winning 7-0. Same thing kind of in the third set. But in the fourth set tiebreak it was a whole other story – (Donskoy) saving (two) match points right and left. I guess it had to end that way.”

Numbers don’t always tell the story of a competitive match, but maybe these come close – Auger-Aliassime had 53 winners and 48 unforced errors while Donskoy had 39 winners to go with 37 unforced errors.

In round two on Wednesday, the tournament No. 12 seed will face an unlikely opponent in No. 116-ranked Bernabe Zapata Miralles. The 24-year-old Spaniard won the first Grand Slam match of his career on Monday defeating veteran compatriot No. 96 Feliciano Lopez 5-7, 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. Zapata Miralles qualified for both Roland Garros and Wimbledon this year – losing hard-fought matches to Carlos Alcaraz (four sets) and Christian Garin (five sets) respectively.

Photo : camerawork usa

There were two dynamics that could have helped set up a favorable outcome for Marino in her Court 17 match – she would have to serve well and hope that Svitolina might not be at her best coming in from winning the WTA 250 event in Chicago on Saturday. There was every reason to believe the newly-married Mrs. Gael Monfils might be shaky at the start after travelling from Chicago to New York and having just a day to adapt to a new situation. Right off the bat she was – having to save three break points in the opening game.

But Marino’s failure to convert any of those chances gave her opponent an opportunity to settle in and she did – playing an exemplary match with only six unforced errors.

Svitolina broke serve to 4-2 and then again to 6-2 to wrap up the first set in 31 minutes. She took a 2-0 lead in the second set but Marino broke back to 1-2 but then was broken back immediately. The match had seen its final momentum shift.

Marino maintained several baseline rallies with Svitolina, but essentially the Ukrainian was just too solid off the ground and did everything she could to keep the ball away from Marino’s potent forehand.

As disappointed as she clearly was not to be at her best – winning only 23 per cent of second serve points – Marino takes with her the satisfaction of having qualified for the main draw at a tournament she last played exactly 10 years ago.

And over the past three weeks, including her third-round finish at the Omnium Banque Nationale in Montreal, she has moved her WTA ranking up from No. 220 to about No. 156. A solid fall season to get it up to somewhere near the top 100, and she would be guaranteed a spot in the main draw of the Australian Open next January.    


This is the full house on Court 7 at the 2017 US Open for a first-round match just weeks after 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov made his big breakthrough in Montreal, reaching the semi-finals with a win over Rafael Nadal. He so outclassed a No. 54-ranked guy named Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 – to the point that it was easy to feel sympathy for the then 21-year-old Russian.

Feature Photo: camerawork usa