Canadians Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime breaking new ground at French Open

Canada's Leylah Fernandez returns the ball to Belinda Bencic of Switzerland during their third round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium. (Thibault Camus/AP)

It has been a week of formidable tennis in Paris for Leylah Annie Fernandez and Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Taking it one step further will be an immense challenge.

Both Canadians are into the round of 16 in singles at the French Open for the first time in their respective careers, adapting to the thick red dirt of Roland Garros with equal parts nuance and ferocity.

Sunday morning, they will both play for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Fernandez’s run through the first week has been characterized not only by her effective game atop the baseline, redirecting shots with heavy left-handed spin, but also by her fighting spirit.

She navigated Kristina Mladenovic, and the crowd, in a 6-0, 7-5 victory in the first round, responding with a steely determination to the Parisian hostility that often greets the compatriot’s challenger.

Fernandez survived a 5-3 deficit in the second and staved off set points before closing the affair.

After a comfortable second-round win over Katerina Siniakova, she was tasked with a tall order against seasoned competitor and great talent, Belinda Bencic in what would become one of the more compelling matches of the tournament.

In a clash of razor-thin margins, Fernandez overcame the savvy Swiss player 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 in 2 hours, 49 minutes, hitting 34 winners to just 22 errors in the encounter.

Fernandez also overcame an early third-set deficit, and despite a late rally from Bencic, managed to finish the match out on serve at love.

“I think today it was just trusting my game when it mattered most,” explained Fernandez.

“I am glad that I was able to trust it enough for me to keep going and keep executing the game plan.”

Beyond her quality of shots, it is self-belief and persistence that are becoming the hallmarks of the Canadian’s young career.

In her U.S. Open finals run last season, four of her six match wins were of the three-set variety.

At the Monterrey Open this past March, the site of her second career WTA title, she saved five championship points before overcoming Camila Osorio in the final.

What awaits now is an intriguing round of 16 between two of the three youngest players inside the top 25.

American Amanda Anisimova, whose power and shot-making has led her past the likes of Naomi Osaka and Karolina Muchova in the opening week, is no stranger to playing her best tennis in Paris.

Three seasons ago, she produced a run to the semifinals with notable upset wins over Aryna Sabalenka and Simona Halep.

It’s a battle of youth that Fernandez regards with pride.

“It’s great to see that all of us are improving every year and that we keep playing against the best players in the world here and can hold our own,” said the Canadian.

Anisimova and Fernandez have a brief history too, having just squared off two months ago at Indian Wells.

Fernandez came away with the victory on hard court, 2-6, 7-6 ret. as the Canadian again found a way to mount a comeback, saving four match points to win the second set. Anisimova then called it quits before the third began due to illness.

The pair will be first up for the day session on Phillippe-Chatrier.

Fellow Quebecer Felix Auger-Aliassime has enjoyed a similar run of breakthrough success in his opening week at Roland Garros.

Though he was a junior French Open finalist in 2016, until this year, he had failed to produce any results in his professional career, exiting in the first round the past two seasons.

It looked much like he may suffer the same fate this time around, as he trailed two sets to love in his opening match last Sunday, before hitting another gear and eventually defeating Peruvian Juan Pablo Varillas 2-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3.

The closeout to that match was the beginning of a nine-set winning streak in Paris, as he dismantled Camilo Ugo Carabelli and Filip Krajinovic in rounds two and three.

With the result, Auger-Aliassime has now reached the second week of all four majors.

Big serving, poise under pressure, and dictating baseline play with his precise forehand have been the staples of his success. When he gets pushed in rallies, elite defence and athleticism come to his aid.

He will need every ounce of his talent and then some to conquer his next foe.

13-time French Open champion and red-dirt force of nature, Rafael Nadal awaits in the Round of 16, a sporting legend whose name is etched in the record books as the greatest clay-court player tennis has ever seen.

Only two men have ever defeated the Spaniard at the event, with 20-time slam champion Novak Djokovic having done so twice (2021, 2015) and former top-five standout Robin Soderling shocking the tennis world with his upset win in 2009.

In press, Auger-Aliassime may have been trying to downplay the occasion.

“It’s another match and another opportunity to try to play a good match and win… but of course, it’s very difficult,” Auger-Aliassime explained.

It’s well documented how difficult it is to defeat Rafa on clay in Paris.

One advantage the Canadian might have had over his fellow competitors was the best available playbook, courtesy of Rafa’s uncle Toni, a member of his coaching team.

However, Toni will opt to sit this one out.

Auger-Aliassime may lack the tour experience and pedigree that Nadal has, but he’s been steadily gaining match play against the very best over time.

Just two weeks ago, he mounted a valiant effort against Novak Djokovic in Rome, sustaining a tight 7-5, 7-6 loss.

Earlier this season in Australia, he held a match point against world no. 2 Daniil Medvedev, narrowly losing in the quarterfinals in five sets.

These learning experiences helped Auger-Aliassime win his first career title in Rotterdam this past February and achieve a new career-high ranking of No 9.

The oddsmakers will give him the slimmest of chances against Nadal, however, the attitude and composure of the Felix tells us he will be present and ready to compete at his highest level come match time.

“It’s up to me when I come on the court to try to find solutions,” said the Canadian.

If he can solve Nadal on a clay court, he’ll be just the third man in history to do so at Roland Garros.

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