Fernandez Stays In Moment, Wins First WTA Title

Leylah Fernandez (photo: Abierto GNP Seguros)

MONTERREY/WASHINGTON, March 22, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Unseeded Leylah Fernandez and qualifier Viktorija Golubic had never met before Sunday’s final of the WTA 250-series Abierto GNP Seguros in Monterrey, Mexico. Although there was a 10-year age gap between the two – one is an 18-year-old Canadian and the other a Swiss 28-year-old – each shared a similar path to arrive at the title match.

Both the 88th-ranked Fernandez and No. 102 Golubic reached the outdoor hard-court final by defeating seeded opponents in Saturday’s semifinal round, and while one internalizes her thoughts and the other is very vocal in shouting “C’mon” in a variety of languages to psych herself up, each gained valuable match experience during their respective tennis journeys to arrive at this moment – not only learning to compete at altitude but also in playing on the lower-rung ITF World Tennis Tour to help boost their rankings and fortunes, and just as importantly, build confidence. While it’s been a while since Fernandez has played outside the boundaries of the WTA tour, Golubic still hones her skills in the ITF from time to time. Both have a love for competing and it was evident on Estadio GNP Seguros at Club Sonoma Sunday evening.

Staying in the moment from start to finish over the course of an hour and 25 minutes – and keeping her eye on the prize – the 5-foot-4-inch Fernandez won her first WTA title with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Golubic. She combined solid service games – holding eight of nine – with her ability to convert important break points. Fernandez broke Golubic four times in six opportunities, including the ninth game of the second set to go ahead 5-4. Then, the young Canadian lefty served it out at the end for game, set, match and championship. She outpointed the Zürich native 68-54 and finished the tournament without dropping any sets.

Admittedly nervous, Fernandez stayed calm enough on her first championship point to hit a cross-court forehand winner that ended a lively 11-shot back-and-forth rally. Immediately, she dropped her racquet and raised both arms in celebration, her eyes understandably welling with a few tears of joy. Then, after briefly composing herself, she raced across the court to hug her coach Romain Derrider.

Later, during her virtual press conference that was conducted in English, Spanish and French, Tennis TourTalk asked Fernandez what she will remember most about winning her first WTA title. She smiled at the question and gave it a moment of reflection. Then, she thoughtfully answered: “I think it’s just the emotions. You know, last year I lost in the final in Acapulco. This year, I was able again get to the final in Monterrey. I just tried to do my best and tried to use the emotions that I felt last year as fuel for the win, and it definitely helped me today.”

While Fernandez, who was into her second WTA final in Mexico in two years, has successfully made the leap into the Top 100, which enables her to gain direct entry or at least qualify at WTA tour-level events – such as the Miami Open, where Fernandez is due to play a first-round qualifying match Monday afternoon – Golubic has split her time between both.

After not making it out of qualifying for the Australian Open, Golubic detoured and played ITF events in Fujairah, UAE; Grenoble, France, where she won; and Altenkirchen, Germany, to begin her 2021 season. Since then, she’s been a finalist two weeks ago in Lyon, France, and this week advanced to her second straight WTA 250 final in Monterrey. Golubic arrived at her fourth career WTA final as a winner of 20 of her last 22 matches on all levels, searching for her first WTA singles title since lifting the trophy at Gstaad in 2016.

“It’s always tough to lose in the finals, but it was a good match,” said Golubic, gracious in defeat. “Leylah gave a very good performance. I think she was a little more aggressive than I was. She really went for her shots – taking the ball early – and I really didn’t find a way to manage.”

Tennis TourTalk asked Golubic during her virtual press conference what she learned about herself during her week-long stay, in which she went from qualifier to finalist, played seven matches in Monterrey and the only sets she lost were to Fernandez.

“I had a great week. I’m very pleased with my performance. Also, to play seven matches is not that easy. You have to really be ready all the time,” said Golubic, who will now return home to Switzerland and get ready for the upcoming European clay season. “It’s something I’m pleased about, that I could keep my focus. Physically, I felt good on the court. Some matches I got tired, but I could mentally still perform quite well – something I feel I have improved upon. I think the most important thing is that in the tough moments, like today when you don’t win, you appreciate the good things and keep on working.”

As it happened, both players invested a lot of time and capital during the 10-minute opening game to start the title match. Fernandez, who was the youngest player in the Monterrey draw and later said she tried to treat the final as “just another match” saved one break point but held her serve by winning the 16-point marathon game. Then, she aggressively broke Golubic with a nifty backhand volley coming in toward the net for a 2-0 lead. From there, an easy hold at 15 gave Fernandez a 3-0 advantage and, as she continued to attack Golubic’s returns, the Canadian broke Golubic again for a surprising 4-0 lead.

Not to be denied, Fernandez saved two break points to hold serve for 5-0. With her back against the wall, Golubic at last held but still found herself down a double break. Finally, Fernandez closed out the 36-minute first set 6-1 by saving a break point and winning an eight-point game. While she remaining poised during the biggest of points, it appeared she was still having fun.

In the second set, Fernandez broke for a 2-1 lead but Golubic immediately broke back to level the set. Later, Fernandez saved a break point in the eighth game but hit a cross-court backhand winner on the run to hold for four-all. Then, staying focused, Fernandez broke Golubic on the 14th point of the ninth game for a 5-4 advance with the match and a chance at her first WTA title on her racquet. She didn’t throw away her shot. Instead, Fernandez remained focused and stayed composed to the very last point. She executed a great game plan and played aggressively from start to finish – and it was successful.

When Fernandez was asked to describe how it felt when she realized she was a champion and had won a trophy, she said: “I think five minutes after the last point, when I saw everyone come onto the court, the trophies, and then I sat down and took a few deep breaths. I realized I had won. I was mostly a little sad because my family isn’t with me – we couldn’t celebrate as a family – and it’s been a family effort for years. But I was happy that the hard work and sacrifices since the beginning is paying off. I’m hoping there will be many more and next time that my family can be with me every step of the way.”

Soon, it would be time for Fernandez and her coach to hop on a private jet bound for Miami and a chance to qualify for a WTA 1000-series event that begins in a few days. However, on the first Sunday of spring in this beautiful northeastern Mexican city at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental, it will forever be remembered as the day Leylah Fernandez finally became a WTA champion for the first time.

Monterrey news & noteworthy

Leylah Fernandez is the No. 2 seed in the Miami Open by Itaú women’s singles qualifying draw. Her first-round match is against No. 136 Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time Monday afternoon. She would need to win two rounds of qualifying to earn a berth in the 96-player main draw.

• With her first WTA title secured, Leylah Fernandez is expected to rise at least 18 spots when the new WTA rankings are released on Monday, going from No. 88 to No. 70. Meanwhile, Viktorija Golubic will crack the Top 100, rising about 19 spots to No. 83.

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