Speedy and Upbeat, Leylah Fernandez Is Going Deep at the French Open

PARIS — It is a new season and a different surface, but Leylah Fernandez, still tenacious and still a teenager, is back in the deep end of another Grand Slam tournament.

She needed all of her resourcefulness and upbeat energy on this unseasonably chilly Sunday afternoon at Roland Garros.

Amanda Anisimova, a 20-year-old American seeded 27th, is one of the biggest pure hitters in women’s tennis, capable of generating phenomenal pace with a seemingly casual swipe of the racket.

She has a new model this season, which has helped her control her easy power. The 17th-seeded Fernandez spent nearly two hours digging in the corners and lunging for returns, but in the end, the counterpuncher beat the puncher 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 as Fernandez’s quickness, consistency and yes-I-can positivity made the small difference as she advanced to her first French Open quarterfinal.

“She’s very offensive,” Fernandez said. “I just tried to be as offensive as her and just take my chances, and the balls went in today.”

That is no coincidence at this stage. Fernandez, a 19-year-old Canadian, looks like a big-stage player and was part of perhaps the biggest surprise in tennis history when she and another unseeded teenager, Emma Raducanu, advanced to the U.S. Open final last year with Raducanu, a qualifier, winning in straight sets.

The rest of the women’s field has certainly taken notice.

“I’m thinking, especially if the U.S. Open taught us anything, that anybody can win on any day,” said Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old American who is seeded 18th at Roland Garros.

Gauff played one of the better matches on Sunday, defeating No. 31 seed Elise Mertens 6-4, 6-0 to return to the French Open quarterfinals, where she lost last year to the eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova in an error-strewn match that Gauff ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of her short career because of the way she managed the most significant points.

“I think that was the biggest lesson I learned last year in my quarterfinal,” Gauff said. “I had a couple of set points, and I think I freaked out when some of those points didn’t go my way. Today I didn’t freak out.”

Instead, she gathered strength and showed increased patience on the clay, often engaging in long rallies with Mertens before going for winners (or hitting a lunging backhand around the net post).

Her work on herself and with her new coach, Diego Moyano, seems to be paying dividends, and Gauff will next face one of Moyano’s former pupils, Sloane Stephens, in an all-American, intergenerational duel.

Stephens, 29, is unseeded this year but has long thrived on clay and was a French Open finalist in 2018. On Sunday, she overwhelmed Jil Teichmann 6-2, 6-0. Stephens defeated Gauff 6-4, 6-2 in the second round of last year’s U.S. Open when they played for the first time on tour. But that was hardly the first meeting. Both are based in South Florida, and Stephens attended Gauff’s 10th birthday party and practiced with Gauff for the first time when Gauff was 12 and already planning on facing Stephens on much bigger stages.

“Today I didn’t freak out,” Coco Gauff said of her straight-sets win on Sunday.Credit…Yoan Valat/EPA, via Shutterstock

“I had a very competitive mind-set since I was a little girl,” Gauff said. “Yes, I looked up to her and all that, but I knew that I was going to be playing against her.”

For those who followed the dueling Cinderella stories, Fernandez and Raducanu will be forever linked, but though both were seeded here in Paris, they have not been on parallel paths since New York.

Neither has come close to taking the regular tour by storm. That has been reserved for a player who is only slightly older: the new No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who at age 20 has won 31 straight matches and remains a prohibitive favorite at Roland Garros, where she was a surprise teenage champion herself in 2020.

But while Raducanu has signed a series of major endorsement deals and shuffled coaches, she has yet to get past the quarterfinals of a regular tour event since the U.S. Open. Fernandez has often lost early as well but she did defend her singles title in Monterrey, Mexico, in March and is now making her best run in Paris with a fine chance to go farther considering that she will face the unseeded Italian Martina Trevisan in a rare quarterfinal between left-handers at Roland Garros.

Sloane Stephens will face Gauff, her fellow American, in the quarterfinals.Credit…Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Fernandez said she put too much pressure on herself to succeed after the U.S. Open final.

“I just wanted to be more offensive, more aggressive and improve my game as fast as possible,” she said. “I think I just understood that there is a process, and it’s still a long year, a very long year, and I just need to calm myself down, calm my mind down. And just accept that things are going to be tough, things are going to go sideways in a match, in a practice. And just understand that I’ve got more tools in my toolbox that I can use and just find solutions.”

That last sentence sounds like she has been studying the Rafael Nadal phrase book, and there is indeed a touch of Nadal in Fernandez on court. She, too, is a speedy lefty with unorthodox technique. Nadal has his bolo-whip finish on the forehand; Fernandez has extreme grips of her own and often hits her two-handed backhand with her hands far apart.

There are the intangibles, too: the in-the-moment combativeness; the resolute walk between points and the ingrained rituals. Anisimova might want to jot down a few notes considering her lingering tendency to get negative. She often grimaced at her errors on Sunday, mocking her own shots and flinging her racket across the red clay in frustration late in the final set to the sound of a few scattered boos from stands that were never more than half full on the main Chatrier Court.

Fernandez seemed like a more composed and focused presence. Even if her game was a flickering flame, her commitment was not.

“Every time I step out on the court I still have something to prove,” she said. “I still have that mind-set I’m the underdog. I’m still young. I still have a lot to show to the people, to the public so that they can just enjoy the tennis match.”

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