MONTREAL — Canada’s Leylah Fernandez has an all-time great in her corner.
Venus Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, former world No. 1 and Olympic gold medallist who’s still playing at 43 years of age, couldn’t have more time for the young player from Laval, Que.
"She has the greatest attitude on the court. Unbelievable competitor. I think she's so good for the game,” said Williams in her pre-tournament availability at the National Bank Open. “When you watch her play, you feel like you're a part of it. You feel like you're a part of something."
Williams says she and Fernandez used to hit balls together often during the pandemic.
That’s happened less lately with Williams often injured, but Fernandez has certainly left an impression on the veteran — much like she did with the tennis world during her compelling underdog run to the 2021 U.S. Open final.
“She gives you that energy, you want to root for her,” said Williams. “Every time I see her on the court I'm always rooting for her because you feel something for that."
Fernandez opens her first-round National Bank Open match against qualifier American Peyton Stearns, likely Tuesday, in front of a hometown crowd. The 56-player WTA1000 women’s singles tournament runs through Sunday at IGA Stadium in Montreal.
Her ranking, however, has slid to 88th — far below the No. 13 she held at the tournament last year.
Fernandez says despite that she feels her game is making strides as she continues her development, but admits she’s eager to get results.
"I think the challenge is that I'm very impatient and I want the results right away,” she said. “But I have to learn to be patient and take it step by step.”
Williams, who was scheduled to play Monday night against fellow American Madison Keys as the main draw action got underway, has spent the better part of this year injured, playing in just six matches before this week.
After suffering an injury in New Zealand to start the year, the five-time Wimbledon champion made a return for the grass-court season in June but suffered a knee injury in first-round play at the All England Club.
She says she fought hard to be in Montreal, with a steady routine of “icing five times a day, therapy three times a day, and praying.”
"I've never played here a lot in my career and I just didn't want to miss it," said Williams. "I gave my all to be here, so I'm going to give my best out there on the court."
As the oldest player on the WTA tour, Williams says she likes giving advice to young players and seeing them pursue their dreams.
Fernandez is grateful she’s been a beneficiary — and appreciates the opportunity to play in the same tournament as a legend like Williams once again.
“We talk sometimes and she encourages me and gives me some words of encouragement for my career,” said Fernadez. “I'm happy she's here and still has the strength to play against us, and it's always a challenge for us to play her because she's such a legend."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2023.
Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press