INTERVIEW: Leylah Fernandez stops by the Tennis Chanel desk at Roland Garros after her third-round win

At the age of 19, Leylah Fernandez is still in the formative stages of her career. But if Friday’s 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 third-round win over Belinda Bencic is any indication, Fernandez’s lefthanded synthesis of grit and artistry is emerging rapidly.

“Yes, it was an incredible fight,” said Fernandez. “I think today I was just trusting my game when it mattered the most, and I'm just glad that I was able to trust it enough for me to keep going and keep executing the game plan.”

This was the first time these two had played one another—always a pivotal moment. The plot was spiced up even more by the fact that they are quite close to one another in the rankings, with Bencic ranked 14th and Fernandez 18th. And then there was something even more intriguing: similarity in playing style. Fernandez and Bencic are first-rate time-robbers, not strictly with pace, but with their ability to hit the ball earlier than most players, a skill that keeps opponents off-balance and subsequently creates a great many openings for placements. But when both competitors play that way, it can also make for patchy periods, an ebb and flow that happened frequently today.




Given the many twists this match took, it’s difficult to determine if the tale is best told from the vantage point of the winner or the loser. Consider how it went for Bencic. Broken in her opening service game, Bencic rallied from 0-3 down in the first set to serve for it at 5-4. There she went ahead 40-15.

But hand it to Fernandez for digging in, and not merely with defense. On Bencic’s first set point, the Canadian cracked a crisp forehand. On the next came a Fernandez signature shot, a sharply angled, rolling crosscourt forehand that opened up the court for a crosscourt backhand winner. Quickly, taking advantage of a discouraged Bencic, Fernandez had leveled the set and held.

Then, with Bencic serving to stay in the set at 5-6, 30-30, Fernandez pounced on a backhand service return, driving it down the line for a winner. This too seemed to demoralize Bencic, who subsequently lost the 62-minute set with a lackluster backhand that sailed long.

And yet, for all the ways that high energy and adventurous shot-making had put Fernandez in the lead, little from that bounced forward into the second set. Here came Bencic’s time to assert herself. Though less likely to generate angles the way a lefthander like Fernandez can, Bencic’s sustained depth and accuracy began to trouble Fernandez in drip-by-drip fashion. In the first set, Bencic hit the ball inside the baseline 24 percent of the time. In the second set, she upped that figure to 37 percent. As the third set got underway, the 25-year-old Bencic appeared the far more seasoned competitor, winning nine of 11 points to go up 2-0, 40-love.

Once again, a shift in direction. It began with a sharply angled crosscourt backhand winner from Fernandez. Next, a Bencic double-fault, followed by a backhand lined into the net. Just like that, all the momentum Bencic had built vanished.


I'm glad that I was able just to soak every minute in and play well, play well when it mattered and play well in front of a beautiful crowd. Leylah Fernandez

While Bencic and Fernandez could equal with one another in the ball-striking department, in the end, attitude made the difference. Over the course of a match that lasted nearly three hours, it was the younger Fernandez who stayed far more positive. When that kind of optimism and fighting spirit is mixed with depth, accuracy and innovation, an opponent can start to feel smothered. Serving at 3-all, Bencic made three errors to go down love-40. Though she fought off the first two break points, at 30-40, Bencic double-faulted.

Fernandez served for the match at 5-4 and went ahead 30-15. Here, Bencic rallied, hitting a backhand swing volley winner. A tight Fernandez double-faulted and netted a backhand.

At 5-all, given the many ups and downs from each side of the net, a closing tiebreaker seemed a reasonable scenario. But as she had several times, at a high-stakes moment, Fernandez seized the day. With Bencic serving at 5-all, 15-love, Fernandez laced an inside-out forehand return winner. Deep drives on the next two points triggered errors—and a pivotal break—from a surprisingly listless Bencic.

Serving for the match a second time, Fernandez never let up, at 30-love serving a wide ace, and on match point scampering well enough that Bencic could only tap a forehand half volley into the net.

Just like that, Fernandez had won seven straight points—and a trip to the round of 16 at a major for only the second time in her career.

“I'm glad that I was able just to soak every minute in and play well, play well when it mattered and play well in front of a beautiful crowd,” Fernandez said afterwards.


Anisimova's last meeting with Fernandez ended abruptly.

Anisimova's last meeting with Fernandez ended abruptly.

Fernandez next plays Amanda Anisimova, who also fought though a rollercoaster third-rounder. Facing Karolina Muchova, Anisimova lost a 95-minute first set despite holding two set points and a 5-1 lead in the tiebreaker. The contrast of Anisimova’s baseline firepower and Muchova’s stylistic versatility—the Czech as close to Ash Barty as anyone—made for many scintillating rallies.

A major telling difference was Muchova’s tremendous comfort in the forward part of the court. Muchova was also able to flummox Anisimova from the baseline with slice backhands and flat forehands. Anisimova’s awkwardness around the net was revealed frequently, most notably when, leading 7-6 in the tiebreaker, she elicited a weak lob—but instead of hitting an overhead, she attempted and missed a forehand swing volley.

But in the second set, with Muchova serving at 2-2, 15-all, Muchova ran wide for a forehand and rolled her ankle. That was injury number two; Muchova at the end of the first set having her left hamstring taped. This was also only Muchova’s fourth tournament since the US Open, as for many months she’d grappled with an abdominal injury.

From that point on, Muchova was a shadow of herself. Far less disrupted at this point, Anisimova lined groundstrokes into corners and never lost another game. As the third set got underway, Muchova could barely move and wisely opted to stop. Anisimova had won 6-7 (7), 6-2, 3-0 retired.

“It's very tough ending a match that way,” said Anisimova. “So I just hope that she gets the rest she needs and feels better … it's not ideal to finish the match like that.”

Anisimova and Fernandez have their own unique history. The only previous time these two played one another came this past March at Indian Wells. Anisimova won the first set 6-2 and held four match points, only to lose the second set 7-6 (0)—at which point Anisimova retired from the match due to an illness.

“Amanda is a great player,” Fernandez said today. “She's been at this stage for like a few times, actually. Like, she's been deep into tournaments a lot this year, so I know she's going to be a tough player.”