Commentary: Leylah Fernandez shows Indian Wells fans what makes her a special player

Leylah Fernandez returns a shot to Shelby Rogers at the BNP Paribas Open.
Leylah Fernandez returns a shot during her three-set loss to Shelby Rogers at the BNP Paribas Open on Tuesday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

She lost the match and won the day.

The BNP Paribas Open, mostly a yawn so far in this October makeup edition, was roused from its slumber of mostly routine and indifferent performances Tuesday by a player from Canada who might weigh 110 pounds if you put lead in her sneakers.

Leylah Fernandez was defeated by American Shelby Rogers, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (4). The match went 2½ hours on the main show court here, the 16,100-seat Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Midweek afternoon tennis in the desert heat is far from a destination stop, especially when it is held in October rather than its established March dates. Even if you are a diehard tennis fan, getting off the air-conditioned couch takes something special.

There she was, Little Leylah.

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By the end of the match, when the mostly unheralded Rogers completed one of the best performances of her career, the stadium was rocking and rolling. It wasn’t anywhere near full. That happens with upcoming weekend semifinals and finals. Yet it was noisy, vibrant, engaged. Ushers had to hold back large groups in the stadium entrance wells until there was a break in the match. That was a first for a day match this year.

It was simple. These fans knew tennis and had learned the back story. They had come to see this little woman for themselves, and by the time the match was well into the second set, there were several thousand of them.

Fernandez had entered the U.S. Open a month ago like so many others, a promising tour player with zero reputation, mostly happy just to get into the main draw. She is 19. Little was expected, even by her.

Then she battled all the way to the final, beating three of the top five players in the world along the way, including defending champion Naomi Osaka. Journalists and broadcasters scrambled to find out about her and learned, among other things, that she was born in Canada, lived and trained mostly in Florida, and was coached by her father, who was a former soccer player. The world watched as she pulled back her black hair into a tight bun, smiled a warm-your-heart smile, jogged out to her side of the court like the ultra-popular Rafael Nadal has done for years, and then banged groundstrokes as hard and accurately as a player 30 pounds heavier and eight inches taller. The tour lists her at 5 feet 6. Maybe they had her stand on a box.

Leylah Fernandez competes at Indian Wells on Tuesday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Then the world watched as she got outhit and beaten in the U.S. Open final by an even younger Emma Raducanu, an 18-year-old Brit. But losing turned out to be only part of the story. A packed stadium and millions of TV watchers were charmed when, in the awards ceremony at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the defeated player smiled, was more than gracious, and had the presence of mind to understand that the tennis event was being played at the time of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York.

Fernandez gave her thank-yous, cradled her runner-up silver dish, then asked whether she could say one more thing: “I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been for the last 20 years.”


Tears welled up around the world. Here she was, just 19, dealing with the loss of the biggest match of her life, with the reality that she might never get back to that fabled Ashe Stadium podium, and she was able to think about others, to see a bit of life’s big picture. Game, set and match to the runner-up.

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People remembered that, and if they needed a reminder about why Fernandez was special, they got it Sunday night, when she battled a veteran and the ninth-seeded player here, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and won in three sets. That went on well past two hours.

So, Tuesday afternoon, they came to the big stadium in the desert to see for themselves. Overheard in a food service line was a Canadian who was asked whether he had brought his Maple Leaf flag. No, he said, but the people sitting in front of him had one. He had asked them what part of Canada they were from. “We’re from Dallas,” they said. “We just like Leylah.”

Even Rogers, who will turn 29 on Wednesday, said afterward that she liked Leylah too.

“It was an incredible match,” she said. “The level of tennis throughout was ridiculous. And she is such a sweet girl. I’ve gotten to know her a little bit. She has a very bright future.”

A decade or so ago, the women’s tennis tour was labeled by Mary Carillo, broadcaster and former French Open mixed-doubles champion with some guy named John McEnroe, “Big Babe Tennis.” Those were the days when Mary Pierce won the French Open, Lindsay Davenport dominated with her huge forehand and Serena Williams dominated with everything.

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Perhaps young Fernandez will begin a run of Mighty-Mite Tennis. She has no obvious weapon in her game, other than guts and left-handed shot angles. But that might be enough, as well as many intangibles.

Tuesday, she came, saw and didn’t conquer. Then she left to a standing ovation.