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Brain over brawn as Canadian Fernandez plots path to top 10

(Reuters) - Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez is a girl in a hurry.

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - Fernandez finishes Zarazua's race to claim the Acapulco final - Princess Acapulco Stadium, Acapulco, Mexico - February 28, 2020 Canada's Leylah Fernandez in action during her semifinal match against Mexico's Renata Zarazua REUTERS/Henry Romero

Not content with making her Grand Slam main draw debut this year aged 17 in Australia, cracking the top 100, and on Thursday reaching round three at the French Open, she has boldly set her sights on the top 10 next year.

So far she has ticked off all her targets so her confidence is not misplaced and anyone who has seen her in action in Paris this week will not be surprised if her rise is rapid.

Fernandez, French Open junior champion in 2019, beat Polish 31st seed Magda Linette in round one and then saw off experienced Slovenian Polona Hercog on Thursday, showing that American Coco Gauff is not the only rising star in women’s tennis.

Quietly-spoken and polite, Montreal-born Fernandez exudes self-belief and maturity beyond her years and is clearly not afraid to set lofty goals.

“I’m not surprised, I’m really happy that whatever goals I’ve set at the beginning of the year they’ve been realised,” Fernandez, who reached her first WTA final in Mexico in February and has twice beaten former U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, told Reuters by telephone.

“Hopefully that will keep going and hopefully I will be in the top 10 soon. I’ve set that goal since I wanted to be a professional tennis player. That’s the ultimate goal for next year, or the year after, that’s definitely the route.”

Fernandez, whose father is Ecuadorian and whose mother is Filipino, offers a refreshing change from the baseline pounders that usually roll off the academy production lines.

She stands 5 feet 4 inches tall and is towered over by most opponents. Not that she lacks in firepower, but her biggest weapons are arguably her feet and her brain.

“I think every smaller player brings something different,” she said. “I really use my speed and the angles that I can create to try to de-stabilise taller players.

“But I’ve been training with taller players all my life so now it’s kind of normal for me.”

FIND SOLUTIONS

Besides learning salsa dancing, one of her hobbies is puzzles and it’s a skill she brings to a tennis court.

“The thinking part of tennis is very important,” Fernandez, who speaks fluent French, Spanish and English, says.

“If you are able to find solutions most of the time it will go your way unless the other player just plays a great match.

“All the training I’ve done with my dad in the past, thinking and finding solutions, it’s paying off.”

Fernandez’s father Jorge was a soccer player and is still her coach, as he is to her promising younger sister Bianca, although she also travels with Romain Deridder.

She said her father’s soccer education has given her valuable tools in her tennis career.

“Because of him the first sport I watched was soccer and he taught me to not just follow the ball, he said watch the movement of the other players, how they create openings.

“He brought that same mentality to tennis, don’t just watch the ball and where it’s going, watch the openings that are being created, where is your opponent?”

Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who Fernandez faces next, has not seen the Canadian in action but the seventh seed might be in for an uncomfortable introduction.

While the power players have cursed the slow conditions, Fernandez is revelling in them.

“I’m loving the clay here, I love how it feels and how it moulds with my game. I’m here for a reason and I’m here to win and hopefully get to the second week.”

Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis

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