There may come a time when Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu are on the draw of a major tournament and one of their names doesn’t immediately follow the other into the tennis consciousness.
Maybe, but not yet.
One of them has made her way up and down and up the ever-evolving ladder that is women’s professional tennis.
The others struggled for a year and a half to string together wins, then ended the season and underwent three surgeries — on each wrist and one ankle — on a sad day last spring. It wasn’t long before the other realized that she too needed to hit the reboot button on her career.
One is the daughter of financial executives, the daughter of a Chinese father and a Romanian mother, raised in Britain with many advantages and the choice of the best universities where she took that path.
The others grew up in Canada and then on the hot hard courts of Florida, driven by the desire and by his father, a former Ecuadorian footballer, to earn a living with a tennis racket.
Aside from being born nine weeks apart in Canada, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez don’t have much in common. They are nothing more than professional acquaintances.
Inevitably, they will always be more than that and will always be bonded because of those magical two weeks just over two years ago, when they were still teenagers and co-stars in the craziest Grand Slam tennis tournament that ever took place. At the end of nearly three weeks of competition, Raducanu, relatively unknown outside Britain, had won 10 consecutive matches, including the qualifying tournament, and 20 consecutive sets, and had defeated Fernandez, the 73rd ranked player in the world but the second most unlikely finalist that day, for the scudetto.
Since then there has been a lot of frustration for both of us. Tough defeats and early exits, harsh lessons about life in the spotlight and a series of injuries that at times seemed like they would never end. Raducanu, in particular, seemed mostly unhappy with every tournament and defeat, especially during the last few months when he played in constant pain.
But here they are this week in Melbourne, in the second round on opposite sides of the draw, 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.
For Raducanu, 21, that meant a first-round win Tuesday night over American veteran Shelby Rogers 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 much of the style that took her to those lofty heights: the easy, deceptively fast, the low, whipping movement and curling power from the ground, even a slight backhand drop shot and, above all, the ability to not beat himself with careless errors.
The final score was 6-3, 6-2 and it wasn’t that close. Even more and Raducanu will soon be much higher than 296th in the world rankings.
“All aspects of my life are calming down and settling down,” Raducanu said. “When you come back after eight months, having had three surgeries, you’re really grateful to be able to move around freely.”
It all happened a couple of days after Fernandez won one of the first matches of the tournament, a series win over Sara Bejlek of the Czech Republic. Sure, Bejlek was only a qualified 17-year-old, but this was a different Fernandez who didn’t just stay in the points and chase balls into the corners as she always did, but also sprint to finish them as she rarely did Before.
““I can’t always be a grinder or just a returner,” Fernandez said as he sat on a soft chair in a Melbourne Park corridor shortly after the match. “Everyone on tour is a grinder. You see, the best players run for every ball.
For Fernandez, the recovery began immediately after the French Open following a three-set loss in the second round, a winnable match against world No. 127 Clara Tauson of Denmark. Just as Fernandez and Taylor Townsend reached the doubles final at Roland Garros, her father suggested they hold a formal meeting to discuss her future. Her singles chart was about to drop to 95, the lowest since 2020.
He told her she could listen to 100% of what she said and finish the season in the top 20, or less than 100% and maybe finish in the top 40.
“Of course I didn’t listen to it 100%,” he said. “That comes with maturity and I admit that.”
But she listened a lot to what he told her and stuck to his plan to start from scratch with a mini-pre-season in the weeks before Wimbledon, sometimes leaving her rackets on the side of the court and focusing on her fitness. She had been one of the fastest players in the game but somehow she had become slower, or the game had become faster, with the women advancing more or playing drop shots and taking away her time.
He needed to be faster for a longer period and the only way to do that was to develop endurance.
“You see Novak Djokovic every year, trying to improve something,” said Fernandez, who will face American Alycia Parks in the second round. “He changed his whole diet. I started doing yoga. It’s very simple. The fundamentals of an athlete’s body. “We wanted to see what we can improve in my fitness because if my fitness level is high and I’m confident in it, my game will come later.”
His summer, which included another mini-preseason after Wimbledon, was up and down, including a first-round loss at the US Open. In September he played qualifying matches, but in October he won the Hong Kong Open, then reached the semi-finals of the Jiangxi Open.
It’s taken a while, but Fernandez, 21, is finally starting to feel all the attention and crowd that has followed her since the 2021 US Open as support rather than pressure.
“It just took time to figure out what was going on,” she said, “to figure out what I was feeling and work on that … just find a way to get back to the little girl who just wants to get on the court and hit and hit and have fun and put on a show for everyone.
Raducanu wants to do it too. She said she was shocked to see thousands of fans filling the cozy 1573 Arena when she stepped onto the court. She tried not to focus on one potential outcome, which just three games into her return she could go either way, and this will have to be her life for now.
“The difference between losing in the first round or doing really well in a tournament is really, really slim,” he said. “It’s just in the way I move, the way I do things physically. Not being that drastic, I would say, because I know it’s not far off at all. The more I train consistently, it will pop up.”
She stuck around long after the win, soaking in the adulation, signing autographs and posing for selfies throughout the stadium, her reboot officially now underway. The next appointment for Raducanu is the second round against the Chinese Yafan Wang.
“The time away has made me very hungry,” Raducanu said. “I’m just happy to be healthy and pain-free again.”
(Top photo: James D. Morgan/Getty Images)