A resurgent Heather Watson goes for her first title since 2016 when she faces Leylah Annie Fernandez, Canada’s rising teenage star, in the final of the Abierto Mexicano Telcel on Saturday.
Watson vs Fernandez is live from Acapulco on Saturday 29 February at 6pm local/12am GMT
The 27-year-old Watson has three WTA Tour titles to her name, all at International level, with the most recent coming in Monterrey in 2016 when she defeated Carolines Garcia and Wozniacki on her way to the title.
Watson had hit her career-high ranking of world no. 38 14 months earlier in January of 2015 after winning Hobart, but slipped out of the top 100 in both 2017 and 2018, and spent all but a week of the 2019 season outside of the top 100.
The British player worked tenaciously throughout the season, however, winning the ITF $60k title in Fukuoka and the $100k title in Vancouver, and she had her reward at WTA Tour level in October when she defeated Wang Qiang and Magda Linette on her way to her first WTA Tour final in three years.
Rebecca Peterson denied Watson the title in Tianjin, but the run meant that she started 2020 on the brink of breaking back into the top 100, which she duly did after making a run to the semifinals of Hobart as a qualifier, ending Elise Mertens’s 15-match winning streak there. Mertens had her revenge in the second round of the Australian Open, but Watson was still up to world no. 69 coming into Acapulco, where she had only won one match in four previous appearances.
It’s been a great week for Watson at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel, where she has secured wins over Coco Vandeweghe, Kateryna Bondarenko, good friend Christina McHale and qualifier Wang Xiyu in the semifinals, beating the Chinese player – who had ended Wang Yafan’s title defense in the first round and taken out Zhu Lin as well – 6-4, 7-6(6) to secure her place in the final.
Now headed back towards the top 50, Watson said of her career resurgence:
‘I felt like the last six to eight months, I’ve been playing really good tennis. I’m happy with my game, I’m happy with my life, and everything just seems to be falling into place.
‘The last few years, I’ve been working really hard and making some changes, so I think now I’m being rewarded for it. I feel really confident, happy, and excited for tomorrow’s final.’
If Watson is trying to get back to trophy-winning ways, for her opponent in the Acapulco final this is all uncharted territory.
Born in 2002, Leylah Annie Fernandez made her main-draw WTA Tour debut at Quebec City in 2018 when she defeated fellow Canadian Gabriela Dabrowski before losing to none other than Watson. Now 17, Fernandez spent 2019 playing on the ITF Tour and raised her ranking well over 200 places, winning a WTA $25k title in Gatineaux and reaching the final of another in Waco, starting 2020 ranked world no. 209.
Fernandez broke into the top 200 after successfully qualifying for the Australian Open, losing to Lauren Davis in the first round, and was next seen during Canada’s Fed Cup tie against Switzerland in February. Pushed to the forefront by injuries to Bianca Andreescu and Eugenie Bouchard, Fernandez acquitted herself well in a straight-sets defeat to Jil Teichmann on day one – only to stun Belinda Bencic, the world no. 5, 6-2, 7-6(3) in the reverse singles on the following day.
It was an absolutely brilliant showcase of Fernandez’s formidable abilities, and she has carried that momentum forward beautifully into Acapulco: Granted a wildcard into qualifying, she is now on a six-match winning streak after reaching the main draw and beating Nina Stojanovic, Nao Hibino, Anastasia Potapova and Renata Zarazua, the Mexican wildcard who has been on a great run of her own which started with beating Sloane Stephens in the first round.
Fernandez is the first teenager to reach the Acapulco final in the tournament’s history, but the third teenager to reach a WTA final this season after Dayana Yastremska in Adelaide and Leonie Kung in Hua Hin. Should she win the title, she will be the second-youngest WTA Tour champion since Ana Konjuh, a handful of days younger at the time, won Nottingham in 2015; CoCo Gauff, of course, won the title in Linz aged 15 last autumn.
Unfortunately for Fernandez, Watson has a 2-0 record against her, having beaten her on that WTA Tour debut in Quebec City in 2018 and last year at the Vancouver $100k. Watson also has a very healthy 3-1 record in singles finals, and I can see how her counterpunching game would match up quite well with Fernandez’s more tricky-to-control power, at least until the Canadian teenager gets more experienced at constructing points. It should be experience which triumphs in this Abierto Mexicano Telcel final, although Fernandez is certainly one to watch in the future.