For a short while during a cool afternoon on the vast Court Philippe Chatrier, it would have been fair to assume that Belinda Bencic was moving away with her third-round match at speed. She had fought back from a first-set deficit to level at one set all, and then she had established a 2-0, 40-0 lead, distancing herself in the final set.
But over the course of her short career, Leylah Fernandez, who stood unmoved across the net, has shown that these tight moments with her back to the wall are often when the best version of herself emerges. Fernandez retrieved the break in that game, breezed through five of the next six games and defeated Bencic 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 to reach the last 16 of the French Open for the first time.
It has been eight months since two teenagers, Fernandez and Emma Raducanu, faced off in the US Open final and it is not only Raducanu whose experiences have demonstrated the complicated nature of following up a breakthrough result. While Fernandez, 19, has won a round at most tournaments and even won the Monterrey Open in February, her second career WTA title, that tournament brought the only quarter-final she has reached since September.
The Canadian is extremely ambitious and focused, and these results have not lived up to the extremely high standards she sets for herself. But as Fernandez described her first five months of the season as “up and down”, she assessed her progress with striking maturity.
“We don’t see it as – how do I say this? – as a failure, the first five months,” she said. “I see it more as I’ve got a lot to improve and I can just get better. What we want to do is just to get better, because that’s the beauty of tennis, that we have a tournament every week and I can just keep working on some technical things, some tactical things. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t work, we can just go back to the drawing board and get ready for the upcoming weeks and tournaments.”
In the time since New York, Fernandez has seen her profile transformed in Canada and a flurry of endorsements have followed. Her de ella Subway commercial de ella airs often, she has a new apparel deal with Lululemon, and her de ella new outfit is marked with adverts for Morgan Stanley and Easypost. More than anything, however, she was determined to replicate the tennis she produced there.
“I think after the US Open I did put a little bit more pressure on myself,” she said. “That’s normal, because I want to reproduce what I did in the US Open over and over again. I think after the first few tournaments, 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.”
The Parisian clay courts are an apt venue for Fernandez’s first decent showing in a major this year. She already has pedigree on clay: a French Open junior champion in 2019, a year later she returned as a top 100 player and reached the third round. Against Bencic, she demonstrated all of the different accents of her game that fit so snugly with the surface: her heavy lefty forehand, the sharp angles she can generate off both wings from all parts of the court and her penchant for slick drop shots are all at home on the surface.
For Fernandez and all of the other players around her in the bottom half of the draw, this is an enormous opportunity. At the beginning of the day, Bencic, seeded 14th, was the highest ranked seed left in the section after Barbora Krejcikova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Anett Kontaveit, Ons Jabeur and Maria Sakkari all lost in the first five days.
Many are young players. Amanda Anisimova, 20, moved into the fourth round with a slice of luck after Karolina Muchova retired as Anisimova led 6-7 (7) 6-2, 3-0. Coco Gauff, still only 18, calmly handled Kaia Kanepi, 36, to reach the fourth round with a 6-3, 6-4 win.