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Canada's Leylah Fernandez among star-studded NBO field

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Leylah Fernandez of Canada, hits a return to Danielle Collins of the United States, during the National Bank Open tennis tournament in Montreal, Thursday, Aug.10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

TORONTO — Leylah Fernandez vividly recalls running through the rain with her family after finally securing a Rafael Nadal autograph.

They couldn't stop laughing. It was the perfect end to a memorable day.

"I've always wanted to watch the pros play or practice," Fernandez said of attending Canada's national tennis tournament in her youth. "It was so eye-opening, I was so in awe. They were so close, yet so far.

"A moment for me where I said, 'One day I wish I can be on that court hitting with them, practising with them, competing against them.'"

Fernandez climbed that mountain and continues to live out her dream. She also has an especially hectic stretch ahead.

The Laval, Que., product is part of a star-studded National Bank Open entry list unveiled Wednesday for the women's side of the event scheduled to run Aug. 4 to 12 in Toronto.

And with tennis at the Paris Olympics set to immediately precede the NBO — the men will tangle in Montreal — Fernandez is hoping to be very busy over the next month.

"A packed calendar," the WTA Tour's No. 25 player said on a video conference call. "But it's part of the job."

The rest of the women's entry list includes world No. 1 and five-time Grand Slam winner Iga Swiatek, 2023 U.S. Open singles and 2022 NBO doubles champion Coco Gauff, and back-to-back Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka in a field that currently features the top-10 players — and 43 of 44 overall.

"As great a player list as you can have," said tournament director Karl Hale. "It shows you where the tour is going and where our status is."

Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont., who won her sport's premiere Canadian event in 2019 to snap the country's 50-year drought, received a wild card into the main draw as she continues to work her way back from injury.

The men's entry list will be unveiled Thursday. The tournament's official draw goes Aug. 3.

The 2024 Olympics getting wedged into the calendar means the National Bank Open will start and end a day later than usual as players trek to North America.

"Such a unique tournament," Fernandez, who lost in the second round in Tokyo three years ago, said of the Games. "It's an opportunity for me to represent my country, it's an opportunity for me to support the fellow Canadians in their respective sports.

"A chance for me to learn from them."

Hale said pushing the NBO back for the first time was a big boost in getting players to commit as they transition from the clay of Roland Garros to the hard-court season.

"This is a really important stop on the tour — not just the prize money, but the points and the preparation for the U.S. Open," Hale said. "The players also recognize our history as the third oldest tournament.

"It's a prestigious title."

Hale said although there's been a bit of a down spell for the sport at the professional level in Canada, he's hopeful this summer will bring success for the likes of Fernandez and Andreescu in Toronto along with a men's bracket set to feature Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov.

"A bit mixed," Hale said of recent results. "The good news is the expectation for Canadian tennis is very high. We're back in the midst of a resurrection of what we had two years ago."

Fernandez, who lost to Caroline Wozniacki at Wimbledon before getting eliminated in women's doubles, made the third round in Montreal last year following a second-round loss coming off injury in Toronto in 2022.

She said the partisan, red-clad crowd helped erase any doubts when she retook centre stage some 24 months ago.

"I wasn't too sure if the body was gonna be able to sustain that amount of pressure, match play," said Fernandez, a finalist at the 2021 U.S. Open. "Once I stepped on court, it just felt electric. It didn't matter what was going on off-court, it didn't matter that there's a whole bunch of family and friends that were there supporting me. I was able to play the sport in one of my favourite tournaments, and I was able to get my first win in a long time.

"It felt special."

Just like when she finally got a couple scribbles of a pen from one of her idols.

"Beautiful memories," Fernandez said of the tournament. "Bonding memories."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press