Within a few games of Leylah Fernandez’s second-round match against Belinda Bencic at the Miami Open on Friday, defeat already seemed inevitable. As Bencic squeezed up to the baseline, suffocating the young Canadian with her early ball-striking and sharp redirections, Fernandez could not keep up. She tried to hold her own position inside the baseline, but was easily pushed back. When she assumed more risk, forcing the ball closer to the lines, her errors piled up. After 67 minutes, the 20-year-old was thoroughly beaten 6-1, 6-1.
Eighteen months on from her unforgettable run to the 2021 US Open final, Fernandez faces plenty of her own struggles as she tries to follow up her breakout performance. In New York, she showed off the full breadth of her talent. Despite standing 5ft 6in, she smote opponents with the combined force of her vicious lefty forehand, unfailingly aggressive returning, movement that allowed her to quickly flip defence to attack and her crafty resourcefulness.
While Emma Raducanu came through qualifying and marched through a draw full of opportunity in New York, eviscerating all in her path without dropping a set, Fernandez had a starkly different experience. Already an established top-100 player, she was handed a brutal series of opponents, including three top-five players. She demonstrated her fighting spirit, and won the crowd over in the process, surviving four brutal three-set matches in a row to reach her first grand slam final.
The immediate aftermath was not easy. She won a hard-fought second career title in Monterrey last year, but she also lost in the first round of the Australian Open and her numerous early losses meant she struggled to gain any real rhythm. She has learned the same lessons as many other young players, particularly that competing at such a high level for one tournament does not mean a player is immediately capable of doing so week in, week out on the tour as the conditions constantly change and rivals seek them out.
As the 2019 junior Roland Garros champion returned to the Parisian clay, though, things seemed to click into place. After two further three-set scraps against quality players, Fernandez edged out Bencic and Amanda Anisimova in consecutive rounds to reach her second grand slam quarter-final. She entered the match as a heavy favourite against Martina Trevisan, a tantalising semi-final against Coco Gauff, her fellow youngster, on the line.
It quickly became apparent that Fernandez was struggling badly with a foot injury and she simply could not run. Still, her fight alone produced a dramatic spectacle. As her father and coach, Jorge, continually implored her to retire, Fernandez somehow forced a third set before she was defeated. Fernandez was later diagnosed with a grade-three stress fracture on top of her foot, forcing her into a medical boot and to miss Wimbledon during her two month layoff.
Since her return, Fernandez has struggled to regain her form and momentum. She has compiled a 9-13 record at tour main-draw level in this period and the few moments of progress have ended in frustrating losses.
The draws have not been kind. Fernandez’s ranking dropped from a career high of 13 last summer to outside the top 50 after her US Open points fell off. She is ranked 53rd, continually at the risk of facing top players early in most tournaments. She did so at the Australian Open, losing in two extremely tight sets to Caroline Garcia, the fourth seed.
The irregular trajectories of the 2021 US Open finalists have left a curious mark on the tour. This generation has included one of the youngest grand slam finals in the recent history of the sport – Fernandez and Raducanu were 19 and 18 years old respectively in New York – yet according to the current rankings this is a historically dry period for young talent on the WTA. Gauff, 19, is currently the only top-20 player under the age of 21.
For Fernandez, the only resolution is resilience. She added a second coach, Julián Alonso, to her team in the off-season, an important step for a player coached by her father. She remains vulnerable to being overpowered and outplayed by stronger top-10 opponents, as Bencic so efficiently demonstrated in Miami. But she has also undeniably shown clear glimpses of the skill, dynamism and grit that could one day establish her among the world’s best players.