INDIAN WELLS, Calif .– Almost a month after Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez faced off in the most unexpected Grand Slam singles final, they returned to action as headliners.
Neither teenager had played in the Indian Wells Tennis Garden until this year, but they were in the foreground on Friday, anchoring the nightly session schedule during their singles debut at the BNP Paribas Open.
Raducanu, the US Open champion’s surprise, has been assigned to Stage 1, the tournament’s largest showroom. Fernandez, the Open finalist, was assigned to Stage 2, the tournament’s second largest showroom.
Both faced older and more experienced opponents. Both had the crowds behind them from the start, although there were empty seats galore in both stadiums.
Canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and postponed again this year from its usual dates in March, the event is expected to bring together fewer spectators than usual in October.
The scene still looked and sounded familiar Friday night. The on-site restaurants remain largely the same, including the Nobu outlet inside Stadium 2. The rock band led by US double stars Mike and Bob Bryan performed, as usual, on the main stage.
But the Bryans are now retired after jointly ending their playing career last year, and other major stars are completely absent from Indian Wells.
Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem are absent from the men’s tournament. Serena and Venus Williams, as well as No.1 Ashleigh Barty and No.2 Aryna Sabalenka are missing from the women’s event.
But some of the buzz remained as fans showed their proof of vaccination at the front gates and took to the scene to take a look at Raducanu and Fernandez.
Only Fernandez, a Canadian southpaw, took the opportunity: mixing full groundstrokes with deft backhand throws and well-timed net outings to defeat Alizé Cornet 6-2, 6-3.
It was a brimming performance of the kind of big-point resolution and all-court shine that Fernandez displayed on his way to the final in New York.
Raducanu couldn’t make the same smooth transition. Although she won the first six points of her game against Aliaksandra Sasnovich, it was not a harbinger. The types of shots Raducanu hit regularly for winners in the Open – sharp-angled quick hit returns and swing volleys – often hit the board or just landed long.
While it initially seemed a shame that his long-awaited return to competition took place in the middle of the night in London, perhaps it was for the best.
She made no secret of her disappointment in her 6-2, 6-4 loss, gesticulating and twisting as unforced errors piled up. Raducanu only offered a brief, moderate wave to the crowd as she stepped off the pitch after playing for an hour and 25 minutes.
“Anyone can beat anyone”, concluded the 100th Sasnovich.
Difficult to argue at this stage of women’s tennis. Raducanu did his part to prove it in New York City, becoming the first qualifier in tennis history to win a Grand Slam singles title and doing so without losing a set in his second major tournament appearance.
But she dropped two sets fairly quickly to Sasnovich, a 27-year-old Belarusian from Minsk who backed up her thesis on women’s tennis parity by pointing out that she lost in the first round of this year’s US Open.
“So a little different, you see,” she said, comparing her result to Raducanu’s.
Their last few weeks were also different, with Raducanu making two red carpet appearances and returning to London as a superstar in need of a police escort from the airport to his home. It only happened two months after she finished her high school exams and became a full-time tennis professional.
In an interview this week, Raducanu said the past few weeks have been an “out-of-body experience,” as if she “watched it come” to herself.
She made tough calls, choosing last month not to continue working with coach Andrew Richardson, a surprising move given her breakthrough in New York. Raducanu explained that she wanted a coach with more experience at the top of the game. A logical candidate is Carlos Rodriguez, who has coached former Belgium No. 1s Justine Henin and China’s Li Na. Li’s longtime agent is Max Eisenbud, who also represents Raducanu.
“I think it’s going to take a while for me to really adjust to what’s going on,” Raducanu said after Friday’s loss. “I mean, I’m still so new to everything. Like the experiences I am going through right now, while I might not feel 100% amazing right now, I know they are for the greater good.
Raducanu added: “That’s the lesson I think, that you can easily get carried away to be so focused on the result and be disappointed. I mean, I’m 18. I have to relax a bit.
It sounds wise. Friday’s disappointment was not a huge surprise. Sasnovich, like many WTA players, is more dangerous than his ranking suggests. Raducanu is just beginning his tour. The playing conditions in Indian Wells are also very different from New York where the ball bounces lower and winners are generally easier to produce.
But Fernandez has managed to thrive in both contexts. His big spin, especially on the forehand side, gives him more room for error. She may also have benefited from playing and winning a doubles match with American teenager Coco Gauff on Thursday, which helped Fernandez adjust to the speed of the court.
Unlike Raducanu, Fernandez hasn’t changed support team since the Open. His physical trainer, Duglas Cordero, sat next to his mother in the stands and frequently jumped to his feet when Fernandez won a point, as he had done in New York. Fernandez even kept his outfit the same, while Raducanu arrived on the pitch in a new predominantly white ensemble.
His rituals have not changed either: practicing swims and jogging on the spot between the points; right fist clenched after success.
She had plenty on Friday. She was opportunistic and targeted against Cornet, a Frenchwoman who has the basic skills to prolong exchanges and matches.
“It gives me a lot of confidence, because Alizé is a very tough opponent,” said Fernandez. “She fights for every point. I trained with it too. We had some tough training matches. I knew today was going to be difficult.
The third round should be more difficult. Fernandez’s next opponent, Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, was in great shape on Friday as she towered over powerful American Madison Keys.
But at least Fernandez has more tennis to play in Indian Wells – maybe a lot more tennis. Raducanu, after his first visit to the California desert, now has to make the long trip back to Europe to perform indoor events and continue the adaptation process.
Fernandez and Raducanu will long be linked for their teenage final in New York. For now, their paths will diverge.