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January 22, 2023

PARIS — It’s a new season and a different surface, but Leylah Fernandez, still tenacious and still a teenager, is back in the deep end of another Grand Slam tournament.

She needed all her resourcefulness and optimistic energy on this unusually chilly Sunday afternoon at Roland Garros.

20-year-old American 27th seed Amanda Anisimova is one of the greatest pure hitters in women’s tennis, capable of generating phenomenal pace with a seemingly laid-back racquet stroke.

She has a new pattern this season, which has helped her control her easy power. Fernandez, the 17th seed, spent nearly two hours digging in the corners and looking for returns, but in the end the counter puncher beat the puncher 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 as Fernandez’s speed, consistency and yes-I-can positivity made the small difference as she qualified for her first French Open quarter-final.

“She’s very offensive,” Fernandez said. “I just tried to be as attacking as her and take my chances, and the balls came in today.”

It is no coincidence at this stage. Fernandez, a 19-year-old Canadian, looks like a big stage player and was perhaps part of the biggest upset in tennis history when she and fellow unranked teenager Emma Raducanu qualified for the US Open final last year with Raducanu, a qualifier, winning in straight sets.

The rest of the women’s domain has certainly taken notice.

“I think, especially if the US Open taught us anything, anyone can win any day,” said Coco Gauff, an 18-year-old American who is seeded 18 at Roland Garros.

Gauff played one of the best games on Sunday, beating No. 31 seed Elise Mertens 6-4, 6-0 to return to the French Open quarter-finals, where she lost last year to France. eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova in an error-ridden match that Gauff is one of the biggest disappointments of her short career due to the way she handled the most important points.

“I think that’s the biggest lesson I learned last year in my quarter-final,” Gauff said. “I had a few set points, and I think I panicked when some of those points didn’t work out for me. Today I didn’t panic.

Instead, she gathered strength and showed increased patience on clay, often engaging in long rallies with Mertens before aiming for the winners (or hitting a sharp backhand around the net post ).

Her work on herself and with her new coach, Diego Moyano, seems to be paying off, and Gauff will next face one of Moyano’s former students, Sloane Stephens, in an all-American cross-generation duel.

Stephens, 29, is unseeded this year but has long thrived on clay and was a French Open runner-up in 2018. On Sunday she beat Jil Teichmann 6-2, 6-0. Stephens beat Gauff 6-4, 6-2 in the second round of last year’s US Open when they first played on tour. But it was not the first meeting. Both are based in South Florida, and Stephens attended Gauff’s 10th birthday party and first trained with Gauff when Gauff was 12 and was already planning to face Stephens on stages a lot. bigger.

“I had a very competitive mindset since I was a little girl,” Gauff said. “Yeah, I looked up to her and all that, but I knew I was going to play against her.”

For those who have followed Cinderella’s dueling tales, Fernandez and Raducanu will forever be linked, but although the two were seeded here in Paris, they haven’t followed parallel paths since New York.

Neither came close to storming the regular tour. That was reserved for a player just barely older: new No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who at 20 has won 31 straight games and remains a prohibitive favorite at Roland Garros, where she was herself a surprise teenage champion in 2020.

But while Raducanu has signed a string of major endorsement deals and mixed coaching deals, she has yet to make it past the quarterfinals of a regular tour event since the US Open. Fernandez often lost early too, but she defended her singles title in Monterrey, Mexico in March and is now having her best run in Paris with a good chance to go further given that she will face the Italian no ranked Martina Trevisan in a rare left-handed quarter-final at Roland Garros.

Fernandez said she put too much pressure on herself to succeed after the US Open final.

“I just wanted to be more offensive, more aggressive and improve my game as quickly as possible,” she said. “I think I just realized that there’s a process, and it’s still a long year, a very long year, and I just need to calm down, calm my mind. And just accept that the things are going to be difficult, things are going to go wrong in a game, in a practice, and just understand that I have more tools in my toolbox that I can use and find solutions.

That last sentence sounds like she studied Rafael Nadal’s phrasebook, and there is indeed a touch of Nadal to Fernandez on the pitch. She too is a fast southpaw with an unorthodox technique. Nadal has his bolo-whip finish on the forehand; Fernandez has his own extreme grips and often hits his backhand two-handed with his hands wide.

There are also the intangibles: the fighting spirit of the moment; the resolute walk between the points and the rooted rituals. Anisimova may want to take a few notes given her persistent tendency to turn negative. She often winced at her mistakes on Sunday, mocking her own shots and tossing her racquet onto the red clay in frustration at the end of the final set to the sound of a few scattered boos from stands that were never more than half full on Chatrier’s main field. .

Fernandez seemed like a more composed and focused presence. Although his game was a flickering flame, his commitment was not.

“Every time I step out on the pitch, I still have something to prove,” she said. “I still have that mindset, I’m the underdog. I’m still young. I still have a lot to show people, the public so they can just enjoy the tennis match.

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