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Tebbutt: Leylah is lights out

Apr 17, 2021
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

Leylah Fernandez overcame an inspired Nina Stojanovic and a bizarre delay before her fifth match point chance in the final game to prevail in a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 thriller and give Canada an insurmountable 3-0 lead in its Billie Jean King Cup Play-Off tie in Kraljevo, Serbia.

It was Fernandez’s second three setter in two days – after two hours and 34 minutes to beat No. 162-ranked Olga Danilovic Friday, Saturday it was two hours and 46 minutes to outlast the No. 87 Stojanovic.

Seldom in the history of world-class tennis has there been a more inopportune electrical issue – lights affecting the central area of the court going out – than it was for Stojanovic (and Fernandez) as she served to save her fifth match point. But full credit to her – after the 13-minute delay, she missed her first serve, made her second and closed out the point with a big forehand. But consecutive backhand and forehand errors into the net by the 24-year-old Serb and Fernandez was the one to emerge victorious from an enthralling encounter.

Photo: Srdjan Stevanovic

At just 18, Fernandez has already created an impressive and diversified junior and professional resumé that last month included a first WTA title in Monterrey, Mexico. But who knows if she’ll ever again face a situation as strange as returning to play, after such an interruption, and trying to convert her fifth match point as she did in the Kraljevo Sport Hall Ibar on Saturday afternoon?

“The lights went out and I’m like ‘this is like the perfect time for her to hit three aces,’” a smiling Fernandez joked in her post-match, on-court interview about the unreal experience of the delay she had just been through. “I was just trying to think positive, keep moving and keep fighting – fighting the emotions, fighting the tensions. I was happy I was able to pull through. This is one to remember.”

It might not have been based on the start of the match. With Stojanovic playing at a much higher level than she was allowed to against Rebecca Marino in a two-set loss Friday, the Serb won the opening set 6-3 and led 3-1 in the second. But gradually Fernandez loosened up and found her rhythm while Stojanovic seemed to succumb to some anxiety, getting so close to winning. Fernandez then ran off five games in a row to force a third set.

That set began with an exchange of service breaks early and then both players held until Fernandez broke for a 5-3 lead. Stojanovic played go-for-broke games to break back to 5-4, helped by two nervy Fernandez double faults. That led to the theatrics of the incredible final game, which featured six deuces before Stojanovic’s final forehand ended up in the net.

Photo: Srdjan Stevanovic

Fernandez has shown remarkable resiliency and determination in her young career. After she won in Monterrey four weeks ago, she suffered a discouraging but predictable loss the following day in the Miami Open qualifying and then was beaten in the next week in second round of the WTA 500 event Charleston by an in-form Danka Kovinic of Montenegro.

Kraljevo the past two days has just reinforced what a precocious competitor she is.

“I was just thinking positive thoughts,” Fernandez said about recovering from the one set and 3-1 deficit in the second set. “Nina played an incredible match and I just tried to stay as positive as much as I can – fight for every point that I can, think of the present moment – not of the future, not of the past.”

The six match points wasn’t the most Fernandez has been involved with in a match. In February, 2020, in the final of the WTA event in Acapulco, she saved a total of nine championship points before finally losing 6-4, 6-7(8), 6-1 on the 10th to Heather Watson of Britain.

Photo: Srdjan Stevanovic

There was an insight into the No. 72-ranked Fernandez mentality when she spoke about playing Stojanovic – with her now the higher-ranked player and being the target. A year ago, when she upset No. 5 Belinda Bencic in Fed Cup in Biel, Switzerland, she was the underdog and ranked No. 185. Now things are different.

“This was a great example,” Fernandez said, “my coach (Frenchman Romain Deridder) and my dad (Jorge) were telling me that Nina played exactly how I played against Bencic last year. I knew she was going to play incredible and go for her winners and I had to get that extra ball back and win that extra point against her.”

Photo: Srdjan Stevanovic

Canada’s 3-0 margin after the Fernandez victory meant that there was no fourth singles match – only a doubles which Canadians Marino and Carol Zhao won 6-7(4), 6-3, [10-0] over Serbs Aleksandra Krunic and Ivana Jorovic.

Next for Fernandez will be a couple of weeks practicing in Europe, likely at the Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca before playing the WTA 1000 events in Madrid and Rome beginning the week of April 26th.

Summing up the Play-Off tie against the Serbs, it’s tough not to have some sympathy for the hosts. They were competitive in all three singles matches and a tipping point difference here and there and the result could have been different. Both Danilovic on Friday and Stojanovic on Saturday played well enough to win.

Photo: Srdjan Stevanovic

When captain Heidi El Tabakh was asked about what she was most proud of in her contribution as captain, she said, “I think the most important thing for me is to make sure the girls are in the right frame of mind before and during the matches – try to calm Leylah down, keep her in the moment. I continue to tell her she’s a fighter, she’s really tough. That she plays her best under pressure. I was happy I was able to do that and get the win. She believes in herself and it’s crazy because she’s so super-young. But the way she handles herself on the court is pretty incredible.”

Summing up her first experience of the Billie Jean King Cup competition played in pandemic times, El Tabakh said, “it wasn’t like your average tie because of all the COVID restrictions. I really, really thank our staff and team members because they put a ton of effort off the court and behind the scenes. It’s tough times but I’m hoping our next tie will be under regular conditions. Since we’ve here everything has been super impressive with COVID protocol and the way the Serbians have handled things this week. It’s been great. We’re just so grateful we’re able to come here and compete for Canada in a Billie Jean King Cup tie.”

The win by the Canadian team – and Marino’s contribution with her key victory over Stojanovic on Friday should not be overlooked – means it is promoted to 2022’s Qualifiers, exactly where it was just before COVD-19 temporarily brought tennis to a halt last year after it played in Switzerland without then-recent US Open champion Bianca Andreescu (knee) and Genie Bouchard (a wrist injury on the eve of the tie).

All things equal, and with the team able to have back one or more of the players absent in Kraljevo, Canada has a solid chance to reach the elite 12 that play for the Billie Jean King Cup in 2022. And a home tie would be nice – after Canada has had to play its last four match-ups on the road.