Tennis

Canadian tennis starlet Fernandez returns to action after strong start to season

Riding high earlier this year after upset wins over some big-name WTA Tour stars, Leylah Annie Fernandez appeared primed to take her game to the next level. However, the COVID-19 pandemic put Tour play on hold through the spring.

Montreal teen opens Credit One Bank Invitational campaign with straight set victory

17-year-old Montreal native Leylah Annie Fernandez, seen above during a Rogers Cup match in 2019, is eager to return to play after finding early success prior to tennis' shutdown due to COVID-19. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press)

Riding high earlier this year after upset wins over some big-name WTA Tour stars, Canadian teenager Leylah Annie Fernandez appeared primed to take her game to the next level.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic put Tour play on hold through the spring, just as Fernandez looked set to crack the top 100. She'll aim to start building her game up again at this week's Credit One Bank Invitational in Charleston, S.C.

"I'm actually very excited to be able to play matches finally — even if it's just a team competition — it's something," Fernandez said. "Hopefully it will be good and it'll be one step closer to the WTA starting again."

Fernandez opened with a 6-4, 6-0 victory over American Emma Navarro in a rematch of the 2019 French Open junior girls final, also won by the Canadian.

Singles matches at the Credit One Bank Invitational began late Tuesday afternoon with play continuing through Sunday. The new 16-player event will raise funds for the Medical University of South Carolina's (MUSC) frontline health-care workers.

Reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin is one of several WTA Tour stars in the field. Other big names include Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Victoria Azarenka.

US Open champion Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., was on the original entry list but withdrew. Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., is the other Canadian in the field.

She'll begin her tournament with a doubles match, teaming up with Danielle Collins to face Stephens and Amanda Anisimova on Wednesday.

WATCH | Fernandez cruises to victory in 1st match since shutdown:

17-year-old Montreal native Leylah Annie Fernandez beats Emma Navarro 6-4, 6-0 at the Credit One Bank Invitational in her first match since tennis' shutdown due to COVID-19. 1:26

Ranked 209th at the start of the year, Fernandez has surged up the list to a career-high No. 118.

Fernandez made the transition to lower-level pro events last season. Still just 17, she has shown that she belongs at the WTA Tour level and isn't intimidated by the competition.

The Montreal native, based in Boynton Beach, Fla., made it through Australian Open qualifying last January before falling in the first round of her women's singles Grand Slam debut.

Fernandez stunned Belinda Bencic of Switzerland — the world No. 5 at the time — in Fed Cup play in February and reached her first WTA final a few weeks later at the Mexican Open. In March, Fernandez beat Stephens at the Monterrey Open.

Her father and primary coach, Jorge Fernandez, said he cut training down to less than half of what they were doing before the pandemic, noting it has been tough to plan due to the uncertainty about the rest of the season.

"This is a little bit of a science, managing a player's health," he said. "Leylah has said it from the very beginning: her No. 1 objective is always to finish the year mentally, psychologically and emotionally healthy."

Setting the bar high

The 17-year-old said she has adjusted her ranking goals after starting the year so strong. Her original plan was to finish the campaign in the top 100, but she's now aiming to crack the top 60.

In the leadup to Charleston, Fernandez played some training games against players like Monica Puig, Sophie Rogers and others, but the intensity was dialled back.

"Nobody wants to go 100 miles an hour without knowing when the start of the race is going to happen," Jorge said.

WATCH | Djokovic and other Adria Tour players test positive:

The WTA Tour recently released a proposed 2020 calendar that would begin in early August. In the meantime, invitational events will serve as a warmup ahead of the potential resumption of regular Tour play.

This week's stop is being billed as the largest-scale women's tennis event since play was paused in March.

The invitational is part of the Tennis Channel's Re(Open) Tour, a series of events and exhibitions taking place during the pandemic. Charleston is a regular stop on the WTA Tour but this year's Volvo Car Open was cancelled.

The tournament is working with MUSC on health and safety protocols. Players will make their own line calls and only one official and one ballkid will be present to minimize individuals on court.

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