Leylah Fernandez shows Indian Wells fans what makes her special

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She lost the match and won the day.

The BNP Paribas Open, mostly a yawn so far in this October makeup edition, was awakened from her slumber of mostly routine and indifferent performances on Tuesday by a player from Canada who could weigh 110 pounds if you put some lead in her sneakers.

Leylah Fernandez was beaten by the American Shelby roger, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4). The match lasted 2.5 hours on the main performance ground here, the 16,100-seat Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Mid-week tennis in the desert heat is far from a destination stopover, especially when it’s held in October rather than its dates set in March. Even if you’re a die-hard tennis fan, stepping out of the air-conditioned sofa takes something special.

There she was, Little Leylah.

At the end of the match, when the mostly unsung Rogers had one of the best performances of her career, the stadium was tipping and rolling. It was far from full. This is happening with the semi-finals and finals of the coming weekend. Yet it was noisy, vibrant, engaged. The ushers had to hold back large groups in the entrance pits of the stadium until there was a break in the game. It was a first for a match for a day this year.

It was simple. These fans knew tennis and had learned history. They had come to see this little woman for themselves, and by the time the match was well into the second set, there were several thousand.

Fernandez had entered the US Open a month ago like so many others, a promising touring player with no reputation, especially happy to enter the main draw. She is 19 years old. Little was expected, even from him.

Then she fought to the final, beating three of the top five players in the world, including defending champion Naomi Osaka. Journalists and broadcasters rushed to find her and learned, among other things, that she was born in Canada, lived and trained mainly in Florida and was trained by her father, who was a former soccer player. The world watched her pull her dark hair into a tight bun, smiled a warm smile, ran to her side of the pitch like the ultra-popular Rafael Nadal did for years, then hit the groundstrokes as hard and accurately as a player 30 pounds heavier and eight inches heavier. The tour listed it at 5’6. Maybe they had it standing on a box.

Leylah Fernandez competes at Indian Wells on Tuesday.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Then the world watched her come out and be beaten in the US Open final by Emma Raducanu, an even younger 18-year-old Briton. But losing turned out to be only part of the story. A crowded stadium and millions of viewers were charmed when, during the awards ceremony at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the defeated player smiled, was more than gracious, and had the presence of mind to understand that the event tennis was being played around the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

Fernandez thanked her, rocked her silver finalist dish, then asked her if she could say one last thing: “I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been for the past 20 years. . “

Tears flowed across the world. Here she is, only 19, facing the loss of the greatest game of her life, with the reality that she may never return to that legendary Ashe Stadium podium, and she was able to think of others. , to see life a little big picture. Game, set and match to the finalist.

People remembered that, and if they needed a refresher on why Fernandez was special, they got it on Sunday night, when she faced a veteran and the ninth seed here, Anastasia. Pavlyuchenkova, and won in three sets. It lasted well over two hours.

So, Tuesday afternoon, they came to the big stadium in the desert to see for themselves. We heard in a restaurant chain a Canadian who was asked if he had brought his maple leaf flag. No, he said, but the people sitting in front of him had one. He had asked them what part of Canada they were from. “We’re from Dallas,” they said. “We just love Leylah.”

Even Rogers, who turns 29 on Wednesday, said afterwards that she also loves Leylah.

“It was an incredible game,” she said. “The level of tennis was ridiculous. And she’s such a sweet girl. I got to know her a bit. She has a very bright future.

About ten years ago, the women’s tennis tour was labeled by Mary Carillo, host and former Roland-Garros mixed doubles champion with a certain John McEnroe, “Big Babe Tennis”. It was the time when Mary Pierce won Roland Garros, Lindsay Davenport dominated with her huge forehand and Serena Williams dominated with everything.

Maybe young Fernandez will start a Mighty-Mite Tennis race. She has no obvious weapon in her game other than guts and left-handed shooting angles. But that could be enough, as well as many intangibles.

Tuesday she came, saw and did not conquer. Then she left for a standing ovation.

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