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Fernandez digs deep to win NBO singles opener, Serena Williams' return starts strong

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Leylah Fernandez of Canada returns a ball to Storm Sanders of Australia during women’s tennis action at the National Bank Open in Toronto, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

TORONTO — Canada's Leylah Fernandez had quite the return to the court following a two-month layoff due to injury.

The Laval, Que., native defeated gritty Australian Storm Sanders 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-3 in the opening round of the National Bank Open on Monday night, showing minimal signs of having been away from competition.

"It was definitely one tough match. It had great moments, it had bad moments, it had spectacular moments from both players and I'm just super happy that I was able to play in front of my home crowd," Fernandez said. "Also, that my body feels amazing after the match. That's a huge positive. It's the biggest win that I could ask for."

The 19-year-old had suffered a stress fracture in her foot during a quarterfinal loss at the French Open to Martina Trevisan at the end of May.

Monday's match also happened to be her first win at the tournament in three years of competing in it.

"I'm extremely happy that I got my first win (at the) National Bank Open. Three years, played in qualifiers, three years I lose against the same qualifier. I was happy that I was able to get the win."

In a match where Fernandez was really tested and missed opportunities to close it out sooner, she felt as though it was her mental toughness more than conditioning that helped her push through to the finish.

"It was not easy. I haven't played a tennis match in so long. But, I have been training extremely well, long hours, trying to prepare for these matches. We all know that a tennis match is different because you have these emotions, you have these expectations," Fernandez said.

"I'm just happy that we were training good and that we were able to prepare not only myself physically, but mentally. Because mentally, that's the one that's going to push me through those tough moments. It's going to (help) me make that decision to fight through it and not get down on myself."

With the start time of her match pushed way back because of weather delays, Fernandez and Sanders wasted little time getting to work.

The first game featured four deuces, which Fernandez was finally able to close out with a brilliant forehand. It was one of four games in the first set to consist of deuces.

Up 3-2, Fernandez got the better of Sanders on a couple of exchanges, including one with a light forehand that she whizzed by the Australian. At 40-all, it was Sanders who used an ace and a strong forehand to quickly tie things up.

After taking the next game, Fernandez found herself in another 40-all situation, this time with six deuces as both players lost their advantages on unforced errors or the other getting by on clutch forehand shots.

After Fernandez missed on three breakpoint opportunities, a Sanders forehand tied it once more at 4-4.

Up 5-4 in the match but down 15-40 in the 10th game, Fernandez fired back with impressive forehands to tie it up with another deuce, the last shot going down the left side line.

With Sanders serving on set point, Fernandez benefited from a double fault to win it 6-4.

In the second set, it was Sanders who picked things up quickly taking the first two games. Fernandez then won the next three, before Sanders turned it into more of a back and forth affair.

Up 5-4, Fernandez missed on an opportunity to close the set and match as the game went to deuce three times before two misses from the Canadian allowed Sanders to tie it up again.

After trading the next two games, Fernandez struggled with unforced errors, going wide and hitting the net, as Sanders took the final game 7-2 to win the set 7-6 (2).

"I was pretty disappointed that I couldn't convert my first match point or my second match point," Fernandez said. "When the third set started, I was lucky enough to see my corner and (see) my dad saying 'just keep fighting, keep working through it. It's not going to be the easiest match and we knew that from the get-go.'

"That just reminded me of all the times we had some difficulty in training sessions and I got back to it and just started working harder."

In the final set, both players found themselves in another back and forth — until Fernandez once again figured a way to win consecutive games. A cross-court forehand later followed by an unforced error from Sanders, put Fernandez up 3-2 after being down 2-1.

After trading games, and Fernandez up 4-3, the two players went to six deuces before a Fernandez forehand and another error from Sanders put the Canadian up 5-3.

With a chance to advance on the line, Fernandez delivered with the home crowd behind her.

"I'm just happy with the way that I was stronger mentally to accept it in certain moments and then get back to work," she said. "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."

The 13th-ranked Fernandez will next play Brazil's Beatriz Maia on Wednesday in singles action.

Fellow Canadian Katherine Sebov of Toronto fell to Yulia Putintseva of Florida 6-3, 2-6, 5-7.

Earlier in the day, Serena Williams got her reminder as to what it was like to win again.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion earned her first win of the season — and first since June 4, 2021 at the French Open — defeating Nuria Parrizas-Diaz 6-3, 6-4 in the opening round of the National Bank Open.

"I'm just happy to get a win. It's been a very long time, I forgot what that felt like," she said.

It's just the second tournament of the season for Williams, who made her return to competition at Wimbledon just over a month ago. She fell in the first round to Harmony Tan in three sets at the All England Club.

Before then, she last competed at the 2021 Wimbledon tournament, where she retired in the middle of her first match due to a torn hamstring suffered after slipping on the grass surface.

Coming off a tough injury and being on the back-end of her career (she turns 41 in September), Williams had moments on Monday where she seemed to turn the clock back.

"I feel good, I felt like I competed well today. I think that's what I needed to do, is just compete," she said. "Mentally, I'm getting there. I'm not where I normally am (or) where I want to be. Any match I play, whether I win or lose, helps me.

"I haven't played a lot in the last year, (even) two years. I think that helps me physically. I feel much better in practice, it's just getting that to the court. Literally, I'm the kind of person (where) it takes one or two things and then it clicks."

It looked to have clicked at times for Williams, who is widely considered the greatest women's tennis player ever and is a three-time winner of the National Bank Open, formerly known as the Rogers Cup.

The American started out strong, taking the first two games with relative ease.

Parrizas-Diaz tied it 2-2, but despite Williams' struggles at certain points, the 31-year-old Spaniard couldn't find enough of a consistent flow to get ahead.

Williams had 29 unforced errors in the match, with some shots having a bit too much power and going wide or past the baseline.

Tied at 3-3, it was Williams who found her rhythm, mixing solid touch on backhand shots, while also putting her signature power on display with cross-court forehands going out of Parrizas-Diaz's reach.

Up 5-3, Williams had trouble landing set point, with the 57th-ranked Parrizas-Diaz fighting to send the game back to deuce on several occasions.

But Parrizas-Diaz had trouble with Williams' serve, as the American scored on three of her four aces within the span of several deuces.

The last of them caused Parrizas-Diaz to hit a high arching shot that allowed Williams to fire a forehand the opposite way, well out of her reach, to win 6-3 on her fourth set point.

In the second set, Parrizas-Diaz opened things up looking to build some momentum of her own.

Taking advantage of Williams' inability to get from one side of the court to the next, she fired forehands out of Williams' reach to jump out to a 2-1 lead.

Williams then turned up the intensity level.

After taking away the Spaniard's advantage in a game that featured a number of deuces, Williams pulled out all the stops, showing flashes of her old self.

With a mix of touch shots along with some powerful forehands in a lengthy exchange, Williams levelled the score at deuce with a strong cross-court forehand.

After taking the advantage on the next play, Williams won the game with another cross-court forehand that was too much for Parrizas-Diaz.

Williams' effort had the fans on their feet roaring — and some even bowing.

"I just love it here. It's no secret," Williams said. "I've had a fabulous time on court and probably a better time off the court here.

"It's a great city, I love being here. I used to visit here all the time with friends, great memories."

A similar effort came along when Williams was down 4-3.

In the longest game of the match, both players traded point after point, with Williams saving four break points.

Williams took the advantage with one of her seven aces on the day, followed by another strong serve that Parrizas-Diaz had trouble handling, as she hit a rainbow of a shot past the baseline to give Williams the game.

After going up 5-3, Williams jumped out to a 40-15 lead to set up match point. Forcing Parrizas-Diaz to hit another long, arching shot off her serve, a forehand from Williams left Parrizas-Diaz lunging for a backhand shot that skied out of bounds, sealing her fate.

While Williams says the end of her remarkable career is in sight, she's enjoy her time and staying in the moment.

"I'm getting closer to the light. Lately, that's been it, I can't wait to get to that light," she said. "(It represents) freedom. I love playing though, it's amazing. I can't do this forever, so sometimes you just want to try your best to enjoy the moments and do the best that you can."

Williams will next play the winner between 12th-ranked Belinda Bencic and Tereza Martincova.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 8, 2022.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press