Teen stars Gauff, Fernandez ready to shoot their shot

American and Canadian are emerging as title contenders in the lower half of the draw

Coco Gauff, 3e tour, Roland-Garros 2022 ©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT
 - Chris Oddo

Two of the most mature women participating in this year’s Roland-Garros women’s singles quarter-finals just happen to be teenagers. 

Precocious and pugilistic, 18-year-old Coco Gauff and 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez have calmly navigated a treacherous women’s singles draw to take their place in the last eight, carrying an air of composure normally not seen at such a young age.

We were warned of their impending ascent several years ago in Paris. Each won the prestigious girls’ singles title on the terre battue, Gauff as a 14-year-old in 2018, Fernandez as a 16-year-old in 2019. 

In the ensuing years, both have continued to prove that age is merely a number on tour. Gauff famously made waves at Wimbledon as a fresh-faced 15-year-old in 2019, becoming the youngest player to reach the round of 16 since Jennifer Capriati in 1991.

Fernandez needed a little more seasoning before blossoming on tour in the last year. At 19, the Canadian southpaw already has a US Open final to her name. 

Newer and bigger milestones for both could be in the offing this week in Paris.

Angling for the final

As the only two seeded players remaining in the bottom half of the draw, both Gauff and Fernandez are in position to make a run to the final in Paris.

Gauff, the No.18 seed, will face 64th-ranked American Sloane Stephens for a spot in the last four. Fernandez, seeded 17, faces 59th-ranked Martina Trevisan of Italy. 

For Gauff, who has breezed through four rounds without dropping a set to reach the quarter-finals for the second straight year, the challenge is simple: don’t freak out.

Last year she held set points against eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova in the quarter-finals, but fell prey to nerves and let them slip. 

“I think that was the biggest lesson I learned last year in my quarter-final match, I had a couple set points and I think I freaked out when some of those points didn't go my way,” Gauff said on Sunday after defeating Elise Mertens, 6-4, 6-0. 

“Today I didn't freak out when a couple of those important points didn't go my way.” 

Managing emotions will be as important as tactics for the American in week two. 

Ditto for Fernandez, who played tactically-sound tennis to defuse American Amanda Anisimova in the fourth round on Court Phillipe-Chatrier.

What the Canadian lacks in power, she more than makes up for with determination, intelligence and a willingness to embrace the grind - typically the calling card of players many years her senior.

“I think I just understood that there is a process, and it's still a long year, very long year, and I just need to calm myself down, calm my mind down, and just accept that things are going to be tough,” Fernandez said of managing expectations after her star turn at the 2021 US Open.

“Things are going to go sideways in a match, in a practice, and just understand that I have more tools in my toolbox that I can use and just find solutions.” 

Gauff, the first player to reach two Grand Slam quarter-finals before turning 19 since Nicole Vaidisova in 2006, is the more experienced clay-courter of the two. The Floridian enters the quarter-finals with a 25-9 lifetime record on the surface. 

'I still have something to prove'

Fernandez is more of a late bloomer on clay - this year at Roland-Garros she has won four clay-court matches in succession for the first time in her career to advance her lifetime record on the surface to 11-7. 

It is a recent development that inspired her loyal fans to tag her with the nickname of “Clay-lah”. 

No matter the surface, Fernandez approaches her tennis with a fastidiousness not normally seen among the teenage set - it’s rare to see someone so young take her craft so seriously.

Perhaps it is the chip on her shoulder that makes her one of the toughest outs in all of tennis. 

“Every time I step out on the court I still have something to prove,” Fernandez says, defiantly. “I still have that mindset that I'm the underdog. I'm still young, I still have a lot to show to the people.” 

'Anything can happen'

As for Gauff, watching Emma Raducanu steal the spotlight at last year’s US Open has both inspired her and made her wary. Just last week she was posting pictures of herself in cap and gown next to the Eiffel Tower as she celebrated her high school graduation.

This week she is the shrewd, feisty talent who refuses to take her opportunities for granted.

“I really do think anything can happen,” Gauff said. “We do have our strong contenders in the tournament. Some people consider me one of them.

“I really truly believe that anybody can win no matter what.”