'The crowd helped me': Fernandez gets first win at National Bank Open in front of animated audience

Canadian Leylah Fernandez got a tougher matchup than expected in the first round of the National Bank Open, but eventually triumphed over Australian Storm Sanders in three sets, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-3.

TORONTO — When it was over, a battle that lasted two hours and 42 minutes on centre court, Leylah Fernandez threw both of her arms in the air, blew kisses to the cheering crowd, and then she put both of her hands on her head and smiled. 

The top-ranked Canadian in the women’s draw, the world No. 13, fought her way to a three-set victory in the opening round of the National Bank Open on Monday night, earning her first-ever victory at this Canadian WTA stop. 

“It was definitely one tough match,” Fernandez said, smiling under the brim of a white ball-cap when it was all over. “I was just super happy that I was able to play in front of my home crowd. And also that at the end of the match my body feels amazing. So that's a huge positive. That's the biggest win that I can ask for.”

The 19-year-old from Laval, Que., won 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 over Australian Storm Sanders to the delight of a mostly full crowd here at Sobeys Stadium, who chanted “Let’s go Ley-Lah!” and screamed “We love you Leylah” as she earned her first win in more than two months, after being sidelined with a fractured foot. 

Dressed in red and white for her opener, Fernandez had match point twice in the second set — the umpire had to tell the crowd to simmer just before her first chance, they were yelling so much — but she failed to convert, before Sanders won the game to force a tiebreaker and a third set.  

“I was pretty disappointed with myself that I couldn't convert my first match point or my second match point,” Fernandez said. “And Storm did an excellent job in staying in the match and also fighting.”

But Fernandez made good on her third chance at match point in that final set, nearly an hour later, as she watched a Sanders shot sail long, pumped both her fists simultaneously and yelled along with the crowd. 

Nothing came easy on Monday. Fernandez hadn’t played since the French Open more than two months ago, and she came out with pop and energy and zip, but also a little bit of rust, having only days earlier been given the green light to play from doctors. Her opening service game, which she eventually won, only came after she survived a handful of break points. 

The appreciative crowd — which watched the event at full capacity for the first time since 2019, on account of COVID — was behind the Canadian from the outset. Fernandez delivered with winners, aces and her signature straight-faced, intensity-filled fist pumps. 

“The crowd did wonders for me,” she said. “I was feeling their emotions. I was feeling their cheers. The energy that they were able to give me from the very first point all the way to the last, it was phenomenal.”

The Aussie and the Canadian — both lefties  — were on serve early in this game until Fernandez managed to break Sanders to take the first set 6-4, helped by a default from Sanders, a doubles specialist who’s ranked 273rd in the world.

Sanders took the tiebreak in the second set to force a third, but Fernandez converted on an early break point in the final set, then earned another to take the match. It was delayed nearly two hours due to rain, and wrapped up more than four hours after its scheduled start, at 11:25 p.m.

“So it's obviously not my best level but I was just happy that I was able to fight through all these emotions that I had for myself,” Fernandez said. “I think I was just happy the way that I was stronger mentally to accept it in certain moments and then get back to work.”

It was a battle, and it wasn’t her best, but Fernandez survived the first round and she’ll be back out here Wednesday for the second. 

“I was just super happy to feel that emotion again, feel that electricity going through my body once again,” she said. “And just to leave the court with a win and knowing that the fans, the crowd helped me, makes it even better.”

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