The 2021 singles finalist returned to Grandstand less than 24 hours after her second-round defeat to partner with Lululemon twin Daria Saville and stun No. 2 seeds Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula.
NEW YORK—Leylah Fernandez knew she was arriving to Flushing Meadows undercooked, far from the supernova that overwhelmed even the game’s biggest stars en route to her first Grand Slam at the 2021 US Open.
“I’m probably maybe at 30%,” she said after her second-round defeat to Liudmila Samsonova, “and that’s maybe me being generous.”
Fernandez may not have been quite generous enough: shaking off the singles loss, she combined with Daria Saville to well exceed 100% the very next day to score a stunning three-set doubles win over No. 2 seeds Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula.
“Doubles is just so fun,” she said before the 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (10-5) victory. “You get to play with a partner. The atmosphere is different, and when you play with the right partner, you get to have fun on court and enjoy the atmosphere. Even though there may be no fans in the stands, because there’s more players on court, there’s always a few laughs here and there.”
It’s not about trying to do anything special or play someone else’s game to get a win because that’s not what we want. We want to improve and perfect my game so in a few years when I get to these situations, I’ll know what I need to do. I’ll have a game plan and we can just follow it 100% without any worry.
There were plenty of fans on Grandstand as the Lululemon twins took on reigning doubles No. 1 Gauff and partner Pegula, who were fresh off a title run at the National Bank Open in Toronto. It was clear from the outset, however, that Fernandez and Saville are a formidable pair with their mix of intensity and enthusiasm. The jocular Saville frequently drew smiles from the more serious Fernandez, smiles that only grew bigger as they rallied from a set down and closed in on the upset.
Though controversy ensued late in the match tiebreaker—Saville interrupted play when paper flew on court and umpire Christian Rask called a let—the win was a welcome relief after what had been a frustrating summer for Fernandez.
“There’s this great quote that I heard from somewhere,” she recalled on Wednesday. “I’m not exactly sure who said to me but it stuck with us because this is exactly what’s happening: ‘it’s hard to get to the highest level but it’s so easy to come back down.’”
That frustration stemmed from some incredibly terrible luck: just as she appeared on course for another deep run at a major tournament, a fluke foot injury led to a Roland Garros quarterfinal exit and sidelined her for six weeks—ruling her out of Wimbledon.
What was meant to be a triumphant return to a city that so warmly embraced her last summer became a race against time.
“It was definitely more stress than usual, but we came in mentally prepared and knowing that I wasn’t going to be at 100%,” she added later. “We set that mindset that we’re going to take everything match by match, day by day. I wanted to try to improve as much as possible, try to find solutions as quickly as possible in matches, and just keep playing my game.”
The game nearly worked against Samsonova, a brutal draw for a player seeded in the Top 16: the Russian had won her last 11 matches but employs the sort of powerful style Fernandez is able to effortlessly redirect at full strength.
“She was playing better, especially in the last two games,” an overjoyed Samsonova remarked after withstanding what was very nearly a classic Fernandez comeback in the second set.
For her part, Fernandez appeared to be working through the disappointment in real time, mature enough to realize that the result may have been different had she been afforded a more typical Grand Slam preparation.
“Of course, my timing will be off and I won’t be as fast as I was a few months back,” she mused. “I can’t be too hard on myself but at the same time, I can’t give myself excuses.
“Right now, my game is not there, so I’m just trying to find my footwork and speed once again, hitting the ball early. Today was tough, of course, but it happens. I’ve just got to get back to work, keep working. I know I’m on the right path and that I have a great team around me that will push me. I’ll also push myself and we’ll all work together.”
Relying on teamwork in all aspects, Fernandez hopes her full doubles schedule—rounded out by a mixed berth alongside 2011 champion Jack Sock—will not only aid in rediscovering her form, but also lay foundation for her to become an even stronger, more complete player come next season.
“It’s not about trying to do anything special or play someone else’s game to get a win because that’s not what we want,” she said. “We want to improve and perfect my game so in a few years when I get to these situations, I’ll know what I need to do. I’ll have a game plan and we can just follow it 100% without any worry.”