Leylah Fernandez turns last set to sink Belinda Bencic at French Open | French Open 2022


On a chilly afternoon on the sprawling Philippe Chatrier Court, one might have briefly guessed that Belinda Bencic was rushing away in her third-round match. She’d fought her way back from being down in the first set to leveling by a set, and then she’d built a 2-0, 40-0 lead and distanced in the final set.

But over the course of her short career, Leylah Fernandez, standing motionless over the net, has shown that those tight, back-to-the-wall moments are often where the best version of herself comes out. Fernandez reclaimed the break in that game, overcoming five of the next six games and defeating Bencic 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 to reach the French Open’s last 16 for the first time.

It’s been eight months since two teenagers, Fernandez and Emma Raducanu, faced each other in the US Open final and it’s not just Raducanu whose experience has shown just how complicated it is to pursue a breakthrough result. While 19-year-old Fernandez has won a round at most tournaments and even won the Monterrey Open in February, her second WTA title of a career, that tournament brought the only quarterfinals she has reached since September.

The Canadian is extremely ambitious and focused and these results don’t live up to the extremely high standards she sets for herself. But when Fernandez described her first five months of the season as “up and down,” she assessed her progress with remarkable maturity.

“We don’t see it as – how shall I put it? – as a failure the first five months,” she said. “I see it more because I have a lot to improve and can just get better. We just want to get better because that’s the nice thing about tennis, we have a tournament every week and I can just keep working on some technical and tactical things. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, we can just go back to the drawing board and prepare for the weeks and tournaments to come.”

Leylah Fernandez plays a backhand shot against Belinda Bencic
Leylah Fernandez plays a backhand shot against Belinda Bencic. Photo: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

In the time since New York, Fernandez has seen her profile change in Canada, and a spate of endorsements has followed. Her Subway commercial airs often, she has a new clothing deal with Lululemon, and her new outfit is featured with ads for Morgan Stanley and Easypost. More than anything, though, she was determined to replicate the tennis she produced there.

“I think after the US Open I put a little more pressure on myself,” she said. “It’s normal because I want to keep repeating what I did at the US Open. I think after the first few tournaments I accepted that I’m not going to play the same way every time.

“I just have to find solutions and keep working hard. Over the year I’ve just stuck with it, just put my head down and just sanded it out every day.”

The Paris clay courts are a fitting venue for Fernandez’s first decent performance in a Major of the year. On clay she already has a pedigree: in 2019 she became junior champion of the French Open, a year later she returned as a top 100 player and reached the third round. Against Bencic, she demonstrated all the different accents of her game that suited the surface so well: her heavy left forehand, the sharp angles she can create with either wing from any part of the court, and her penchant for smooth drop shots are everything at home on the surface.

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For Fernandez and everyone else around them in the bottom half of the draw, this is a massive opportunity. At the start of the day, Bencic, seeded in 14th, was the highest-ranked seedling 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 some luck after Karolina Muchova stopped as Anisimova led 6-7 (7), 6-2, 3-0. Coco Gauff, still only 18, calmly handled Kaia Kanepi (36) to advance to the fourth round in a 6-3, 6-4 win.

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