Sunday, October 10, 2021 - Leylah Fernandez smiles to her coach after defeating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Round 3 match play at Stadium 1 on day 7 of the 2021 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, CA. (Michael Cummo/BNP Paribas Open)
You wouldn’t know it by all the momentum-swinging fist-pumps, the gladiatorial swag she showed last month during her surprise run to the all-teen US Open final, but Leylah Fernandez is a self-described introvert.
The diminutive, 5-foot-6 Canadian with the outsized strokes says she’s drawn to such solitary pursuits as puzzles, sodoku, Rubik’s Cube, anything that involves on-the-fly problem-solving. That mindset has served her well on the tennis court, too. She found a way to troubleshoot three Top-5 opponents in Flushing Meadows in reaching her first major title match. She came back from a set down in solving ex-champions Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber in succession.
Making her desert debut this week at the BNP Paribas Open, the lefthander stormed back from a set down against ninth seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, moving into the third round with a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 turnaround. Though the 19-year-old couldn’t always summon her best tennis in the two-hour, 41-minute comeback, she found a way to win.
Another puzzle; another solution.
“The funny thing is, I was only thinking of getting the ball back in as much as possible. I did not care if it was the ugliest shot in the world, I just wanted to put it in. And I did,” said Fernandez, taking a page out of Brad Gilbert’s book. “We had this little saying a few years ago, my dad and I, that we’ve got to win ugly, doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. I think that just brought me back to that time and it definitely helped me.”
Fernandez might see herself as an introvert, but her father, Jorge, is decidedly outgoing, at least when it comes to the practice court.
“I get called an old-school coach a lot,” he told reporters during his daughter’s run in New York. “I believe in the grind. I believe in the hard work. I believe in the suffering. If we do that enough, then we get really, really strong.”
That doesn’t mean Jorge shies away from the unconventional. When earlier in the season the toss was flying on Leylah’s serve, he found an interesting way to address it.
“The funny thing is when we went back home to practice the serve, my dad just said, ‘We’re going to play soccer.’ We did not hit a serve for, like, three days. We threw the football, threw tennis balls around, seeing who’s going to hit the target. That really helped me to calm myself and just have fun, not really overthinking it.”
“Every time that I’m on court and the pressure is going up, I just think back to that moment, and it always brings a smile to my face, calms me down, she continued. “I just want to be a little kid who wants to be playing in a park once again.”
Fernandez’s next test will come in the form of 44th-ranked Shelby Rogers. They’ve met just once before, last year in the Round of 16 in Lexington, with the American prevailing, 6-2, 7-5.
Yet another puzzle for the introvert, just the kind she relishes.
Here are five matches to keep an eye on on Tuesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden: