Tennis Channel Live: US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez outlasts French Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at Indian Wells

Advertising

When you’re only ten percent of the population, you take notice of those similar. So when it comes to tennis, I keep my eyes peeled for southpaws of all shapes, sizes, and styles.

An urban myth has it that lefties die sooner than righties, the result of stress incurred by life in a world of ill-fitting desks, right-handed scissors, butter knives and other societal factors that gaslight our ability to cope.

But in sports like tennis, left-handers often hold the upper hand. Tennis’ lefty of the moment is Leylah Fernandez. Fresh off a captivating run to the US Open finals—highlighted by three-set victories over Grand Slam champions Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, and top tenners Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka—Fernandez has continued to play excellent tennis in Indian Wells at the BNP Paribas Open.

Sunday night, the 19-year-old Canadian fought hard for nearly three hours to win one of the best matches of the tournament, rallying from a set and a break down to beat another 2021 Grand Slam finalist, Roland Garros runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4. Today, Fernandez takes on another powerful baseliner, American Shelby Rogers.

To a great degree, Fernandez’s current success has less to do with pace and is more about space: her ability to vary direction and take away response time by hitting the ball early.

To a great degree, Fernandez’s current success has less to do with pace and is more about space: her ability to vary direction and take away response time by hitting the ball early.

The way most of the 90 percent dictate play is predominantly linear, balls pounded deep, hard and forceful. This is how such Fernandez opponents as Pavlyuchenkova and Rogers win matches, their games built on a solid foundation of discipline, repetition and sustained firepower. When righties that skilled are striking the ball well, even if you know what’s coming, it really doesn’t matter.

But lefthanders rarely assemble victories that way. To a great degree, Fernandez’s current success has less to do with pace and is more about space: her ability to vary direction and take away response time by hitting the ball early. Watch how quickly Fernandez organizes her body to address the ball—precious milliseconds sooner that provide the chance to disguise her shot selection and, subsequently—ever-so-slightly—keep opponents off-balance. On the forehand, Fernandez whips the ball, be it crosscourt or with the off-forehand—that later, down-the-line version we’ve seen lefties like Kerber and Rafael Nadal employ quite effectively.

The Fernandez backhand, though not hit with as much spin or pace as the forehand, also angles its way into uncomfortable corners. The serve, still a work in progress (particularly her second), naturally spins wide in the ad court. But here again, the lefty capacity for creativity can surface. Sunday night, holding her second match point versus Pavlyuchenkova at 5-4, 40-30, the logical choice was for Fernandez to serve wide. Instead, she cracked an ace down the T. It summoned up a comment Fernandez made following her US Open win over Osaka: “I was just having fun with my serve.”

At one level, the unpredictable aspects of Fernandez’s game are the result of youth. Still a teenager, Fernandez is likely more familiar with those she’s playing than they are with her. By mid-2022, there will be a detailed scouting report on what shots and sequences can prove effective against her. Then again, one suspects that Fernandez will put in time to sharpen her tools.

Advertising

Various studies have revealed that in sports defined by time pressure, left-handers have a visual advantage—and a fundamentally effective sense of creativity.

Various studies have revealed that in sports defined by time pressure, left-handers have a visual advantage—and a fundamentally effective sense of creativity.

But her lefty creativity remains fundamental. In tennis, lefties are often associated with quick hands, showing off reflexes that give them a great capacity for improvisation. In one rally versus Pavlyuchenkova, Fernandez constructed a magnificent four-shot sequence:

  1. slice serve wide in the ad court
  2. crosscourt backhand approach hit early
  3. improvisational sidespin forehand half-volley down-the-line
  4. sharply angled one-handed backhand volley crosscourt winner

As science shows, those quick reactions are the outgrowth of what begins with the eyes. Various studies have revealed that in sports defined by time pressure, lefthanders have a visual advantage. One reason for this is that lefties tend to be right-brain dominant, the side of the brain more devoted to spatial awareness. In other words, as an optometrist who used to be a professional baseball player once told me, “Lefties simply see the ball sooner.” This accounts for the southpaw penchant for angles and clever variations in misdirection.

Of course, it also helps that lefties are far more used to facing and confounding righties than the opposite.

There is always something jarring and refreshing about the ascent of a lefty. Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe in the ‘70s, Monica Seles in the early ‘90s, Nadal in the ‘00s, Petra Kvitova and Kerber in the ‘10s are just a few notables that shook up tennis with new angles, techniques and tactics. Now, in the ‘20s, we have Leylah Fernandez, disrupting one opponent after another as only a lefty can. And that is no left-handed compliment.