STINSON: Leylah Fernandez returns to action after two-month injury layoff


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Leylah Fernandez says she found she wasn’t very patient, suggesting the rain delays on her return to competition probably weren’t much fun.

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Fernandez, the 19-year-old Montrealer, has been out of action since early June, when she suffered a stress fracture in her right foot at Roland-Garros.

Monday night, after rain pushed the schedule back, Fernandez was finally able to hit her first tennis balls since the spring at the National Tennis Center in Toronto, home of the National Bank Open.

In short, there was a lot of waiting.

Fernandez told a news conference upon arriving in Toronto for the tournament formerly known as the Rogers Cup that being forced to stand for an extended period was harder than expected.

“I’ve learned that I’m very impatient,” she says with a smile. Last year’s shock US Open finalist said she was watching TV and reading books during the layoff, but would also try to ‘head to the tennis court’ before her father and trainer, Jorge, tell him to stop. She only received medical clearance to start hitting balls a few days ago.

Fernandez said she was heartbroken for a few days after learning in the spring that the injury was significant, but tried to see the positives: she was able to spend more time than usual with her family, get some quiet time that a professional tennis career usually doesn’t allow. “I tried to see it kind of like a silver lining,” she said.

First up in Toronto was Australian qualifier Storm Sanders. It’s a measure of Fernandez’s success that even with the absence of a mid-season of more than two months, she still held the No. 13 seed in Toronto in a stacked field, with 41 of the best 43 in the WTA rankings. present.

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Before the raindrops fell to add a new level of uncertainty to the day, short and long term questions loomed over Canada’s latest tennis star. The first thing was simple: how was the foot? Would it be rusty? Would his conditioning be at the level required for a complete match? That last point is a little trickier, if only because Fernandez’s story has such an obvious recent precedent.

Bianca Andreescu, and before her Eugenie Bouchard, shot to fame in the space of a season on the WTA Main Tour, but almost immediately experienced those meteoric rises complicated by injuries.

Andreescu has missed most of the two seasons after her 2019 supernova, an absence that partly coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and during which she lost her joy in the sport – although she said the long layoff had helped her rediscover her passion for tennis. She is due to take to center court here on Tuesday and try to reclaim the title she won in 2019.

Bouchard was briefly one of tennis’ biggest stars after a wild Grand Slam season in 2014, but struggled the following season, then suffered a head injury in 2015, slipping on wet ground at the US Open in New York. Despite being just 28, she is nowhere near regaining the sustained form of her breakout year and is once again in the midst of a lengthy injury layoff.

All of this makes the Fernandez case intriguing.

Even in her mad run in New York last year, which included victories over Naomi Osaka, Angeline Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka before a loss to newcomer Emma Raducanu in the final, she had the advantage of to be an unfamiliar and unorthodox opponent of veteran WTA players. Some of them were visibly frustrated trying to understand this undersized, left-handed Canadian. But Fernandez quickly cemented his arrival this season, winning his maiden title in Monterrey, Mexico, and reaching the quarter-finals in Paris, while moving into the top 15 of the WTA rankings.

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Despite the life-changing million-dollar prize of the US Open and the rush of sponsorship deals that followed, Fernandez was once again playing impressive tennis for someone in his late teens, this which probably explains why she found the injury so devastating.

Momentum, once lost, can be difficult to regain.

Andreescu said honestly that she was so worried about winning and losing that she had to walk away from tennis – this from someone who, despite never hitting another ball, has already done something no other Canadian has done with her Grand Slam singles title.

Fernandez looks like someone who has avoided those dark places so far.

She last played in Toronto three years ago when she was just 16 and was impressed to be in the same place, on the same courts, as legends like Venus and Serena Williams. Now she would be favored against one of them.

Asked if she had any particular expectations of herself after the enforced break and lack of competitive action, Fernandez was candid: “My expectations are high,” she said.

The drive back to New York was about to begin. Although it took a little longer than expected.

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