There may come a time when Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu are in the draw of a major tournament and one of their names does not immediately follow the other in the tennis consciousness.
Maybe, but not yet.
One of them has been grinding her way up and down and back up the ever-shifting ladder that is women’s professional tennis.
The other struggled for a year and a half to string wins together, then called it a season and had three surgeries — on each wrist and one of her ankles — on one grim day last spring. That was not long before the other one realized she needed to hit her own career restart button, too.
One is the daughter of finance executives, the product of a Chinese father and a Romanian mother, raised in Great Britain with plenty of advantages and the chance to choose among the finest universities had she gone down that path.
The other grew up in Canada and then on the hot hard courts of Florida, driven by desire and her father, a former Ecuadorian soccer player, to make a living with a tennis racket.
Other than being born in Canada nine weeks apart, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez do not share much in common. They aren’t any more than professional acquaintances.
Inevitably, they will always be more than that and always be linked because of those magical two weeks a little more than two years ago, when they were still teenagers co-starring in the zaniest Grand Slam tennis tournament that will ever happen. When nearly three weeks of competition had ended, Raducanu, a relative unknown outside of Great Britain, had won 10 straight matches, including the qualifying tournament, and 20 straight sets, and defeated Fernandez, the world’s 73rd-ranked player but the second-most unlikely finalist that day, for the championship.
There has been plenty of frustration for both of them since. Hard losses and early-round exits, hard lessons about life in the spotlight, and strings of injuries that sometimes felt like they would never cease. Raducanu, especially, looked mostly miserable with each tournament and each loss, especially during the final months when she was playing in constant pain.
But here they are this week in Melbourne, into the second round on opposite sides of the draw, getting busy with the next phase of their tennis lives at an age when most players are still trying to get their teeth into the first one.
For Raducanu, 21, that meant a first-round win on Tuesday evening over the American veteran Shelby Rogers that was as solid as it needed to be. Rogers, 31, was searching for form after an injury-induced six-month layoff, but for long stretches, Raducanu showcased so much of the style that sent her to those lofty heights — the easy, deceptively fast movement, the low, whipping and curling power off the ground, even a feathery backhand drop shot and, most importantly, the ability to not beat herself with careless errors.
The final score was 6-3, 6-2 and it wasn’t really that close. More of that and Raducanu will be ranked much higher than 296th in the world before long.
“All aspects of my life are calming down and settled,” Raducanu said. “When you come back after eight months, have experienced three surgeries, you’re just really grateful to move freely.”
This all went down a couple of days after Fernandez won one of the first matches of the tournament, a straight-sets win over Sara Bejlek of the Czech Republic. Sure, Bejlek was just a 17-year-old qualifier, but this was a different Fernandez who wasn’t just staying in points and chasing down balls in the corners like she always has, but also sprinting to the net to finish them off like she rarely has before.
“I can’t always be a grinder or just a returner,” Fernandez said as she sat in a soft chair in a Melbourne Park corridor a little while after her match. “Everybody on tour is a grinder. You see the top players, they run for every ball.”
For Fernandez, the restart began just after the French Open following her three-set loss in the second round, a winnable match against world No 127 Clara Tauson of Denmark. Even as Fernandez and Taylor Townsend cruised into the doubles final at Roland Garros, her father suggested they have a formal sit-down to discuss her future. Her singles ranking was about to drop to 95, her lowest since 2020.
He told her she could listen to 100 per cent of what he was going to say and finish the season in the top 20, or less than 100 per cent and maybe finish in the top 40.
“Of course, I didn’t listen to him 100 per cent,” she said. “That comes with maturity and I own up to it.”
But she did listen to a lot of what he told her and signed on to his plan to start from scratch with a mini-pre-season in the weeks leading up to Wimbledon, leaving the rackets on the side of the court at times and focusing on her fitness. She had been one of the quickest players in the game but had somehow become slower, or the game had got quicker, with women moving forward more or playing drop shots and taking time away from her.
She needed to be faster for longer and the only way to do that was to build endurance.
“You kind of see Novak Djokovic every single year, he’s trying to improve something,” Fernandez, who faces the American Alycia Parks in the second round, said. “He changed his whole diet. He started doing yoga. It’s very basic. The fundamentals of an athlete’s body. We wanted to see what can we improve in my fitness because if my fitness level is high and I’m confident with that, my game will follow afterwards.”
Her summer, which included another mini-pre-season after Wimbledon, was up and down, including a first-round loss in the U.S. Open. In September, she was playing qualifying matches, but in October, she won the Hong Kong Open, then made the semi-finals of the Jiangxi Open.
It’s taken a while, but Fernandez, 21, is finally beginning to experience all the attention and the crowds that have followed her since the 2021 U.S. Open as support rather than pressure.
“It just took time to understand what was happening,” she said, “to understand what I was feeling and work through that… just find ways to get back to the little girl who would just want to get on court and to hit and hit and have fun and put on a show for everybody.”
Raducanu wants to do that, too. She said she was shocked to see thousands of fans packing the cozy 1573 Arena when she walked onto the court. She tried not to focus on a potential result, which just three matches into her comeback could go either way, and that’s going to have to be her life for now.
“The difference between me losing first round or doing really well at a tournament is really, really slim,” she said. “It’s just in the way that I move, in the way I do things physically. Not being so drastic, I would say, because I know it’s not far away at all. The more I practice consistently, it will come up.”
She lingered long after the win, soaking in the adulation, signing autographs and posing for selfies all around the stadium, her restart officially now underway. Next up for Raducanu is a second round against China’s Yafan Wang.
“The time away made me very hungry,” Raducanu said. “I’m just happy to be healthy again and pain-free.”
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(Top photo: James D Morgan/Getty Images)