With professional sports all enforcing new measures to allow for a safe return to competition, tennis has been forced to contend with the grave uncertainty of managing an international tour during a pandemic.
Since returning in August, the professional tours have made international headlines for all the right and wrong reasons, with Naomi Osaka’s powerful advocacy for social justice and Novak Djokovic’s controversial default at the U.S. Open dominating the headlines in recent weeks.
With tennis in the spotlight, there is a player that has been quietly flying under the radar—both literally and figuratively—with her powerful 5-foot-4 stature.
Meet Canada’s Leylah Annie Fernandez.
Despite a four-month suspension in the tennis calendar, the 18-year-old is in the midst of a breakout 2020 season—one that has seen her check off one goal after another in an unprecedented year of firsts.
Born in Montréal to a Filipino mother and Ecuadorian father, Fernandez originally grew up playing a variety of sports, including soccer, volleyball and track and field, before she was unexpectedly introduced to tennis. While she initially wanted to become a soccer player to follow in her father’s footsteps, Fernandez admits that it was her naturally competitive nature that really made her fall in love with tennis.
“I’ve been a competitive girl since forever. Everything at home is a competition, so from who had the best grades between my sister Bianca Jolie (who also plays tennis) and I, to who is faster going up and down the stairs, to even who cleans the dishes better,” she told En Fuego between tournaments in Europe. “That kind of [competitiveness] transitioned to sports, so it didn’t matter who I was playing against—boys or girls that were younger and older than me—I always wanted to win and I always wanted to beat them.”
With her father as her main coach, Fernandez quickly rose up the ranks as a promising junior, winning provincial, national and international titles, including the 2019 French Open Girls’ Singles title. In the process, she became the No. 1 ranked junior in the world and immediately decided to start making the full-time transition to the pro tour.
Despite her development outside Tennis Canada’s traditional high-performance program, Fernandez has had the opportunity to work with a number of national coaches, but her father has remained the biggest constant in her life, which the 18-year-old admits can be an extremely difficult balance to strike.
“It’s honestly really hard because he is very demanding as a father and as a coach,” explained the teenager. “He’s always telling the truth and he’s there to help me and to push me to achieve my dreams and goals, and I think that some coaches don’t want to cross that boundary [of being extremely direct].”
It’s a complicated relationship that has always been present in Fernandez’s life, especially with the level of commitment that both of her parents have taken on to support her and her sister’s burgeoning tennis careers.
A few years ago, the family moved from their home in Laval, QC to a small apartment in Boynton Beach, FL, where the sisters share a room and have year-round access to public courts. While her father Jorge often travels with her overseas, Leylah’s mother Irene works full-time and takes care of Bianca when she’s not playing tournaments of her own, leaving the family geographically divided for weeks at a time.
“[My dad and I] have had our moments with really intense discussions, but at the end of the day, I know I always have a lot to learn,” noted the 18-year-old, who does not take these sacrifices lightly. “Honestly, what has really helped through the difficult times is that I know he’s a loving father and he’s really funny, which is hard to believe. He pushes me to be independent. He doesn’t keep me in a box. He is always teaching me to make decisions for myself and to be accountable [to] them.”
Ranked No. 209 at the start of this year, Fernandez successfully qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw at the Australian Open and turned heads a few weeks later when she upset World No. 5 Belinda Bencic in Canada’s Fed Cup tie against Switzerland.
With a newfound confidence in her abilities, Fernandez received a last-minute wildcard into the qualifying draw of the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL presentado por HSBC, which allowed her to travel to Acapulco for the first time in mid-February. Buoyed by the support of Canadian and Latin American fans that seemed to increase as the week progressed, Fernandez went on a tear, winning six matches in a row—all without dropping a set—to reach the final.
“In the semifinal match [against Renata Zarazua of Mexico], the crowd wasn’t with me, but they appreciated the effort that I put into the tennis match,” the now-18-year-old recalled vividly with a smile. “The crowd was just so intense that I loved the atmosphere, and just being able to experience that at 17 years old in a big stadium helped me [to realize] that not everybody will be on my side, but I just have to keep focusing on my game and keep working harder.”
While the conditions ultimately suited her game, the Canadian credits the atmosphere for helping her to mature while making her feel very much “at home” during her inaugural visit. Despite falling in three tough sets to veteran Heather Watson in the final, Fernandez had won over the public with her gutsy play and emotional runner-up speech delivered in fluent Spanish—one of three languages that she speaks in addition to English and French.
“I didn’t feel like I was in a different country [or] in an unknown place, even if it was my first time in Mexico. I just felt so at ease and I felt how loving and appreciative they were towards tennis and competition,” she noted. “To see how our cultures—because [part of] my family’s culture is Ecuadorian-Peruvian and they’re Mexican—connect with each other was cool.”
During the four-month shutdown, Fernandez isolated with her family in Florida, where she continued to train while working towards her high-school diploma and learning how to drive.
After taking the time to reconnect with her family, the 18-year-old later reflected on the role that her diverse upbringing played on shaping the person that she is today, adding that “I never really felt like I needed to do something more or I needed to be someone specifically [to fit within a certain group].”
“I am a proud Canadian, [and] I have the heritage of two incredible cultures. My father was a little more constant because we spent a lot of time together, so I would always speak in Spanish with him and we ate a lot more Ecuadorian-Peruvian food than Filipino food. But just being able to explore those different cultures, I think that made me a better player.”
She continued: “On my dad’s side there’s a lot of intensity and fire, whereas on my mom’s side it’s more tactful and quiet. My Latin roots, they’re really passionate and loud and sometimes I’m like that on the tennis court. Other times, I’m more like my Asian side where I’m more quiet and think a little bit more and solve problems instead of going full on with the emotions and the intensity.”
As she prepares to wrap up her season in Europe, most likely at the rescheduled French Open in Paris, Fernandez has her sights set on even bigger things—both on and off the court. Having won the junior title last year, the Canadian will be looking for similar success in the women’s draw, which was her “No. 1 goal going into the season.”
While her long-term goals are to become No. 1 in the world and to win as many Grand Slams as possible, Fernandez says that her ultimate goals transcend the sport, especially in a nation that has seen a meteoric rise in players in the last decade. “What I really want is to set an example for the younger generation, the younger players. I want to bring more players into tennis and kind of bring it as an even bigger international sport, maybe even as popular as soccer,” she said.
“With my legacy, I would like to inspire some federations to not always look at the stature of a player—how big and strong they are—but more about the talents and the work on their game. With time and age, the body will hopefully get stronger. So, with the success [that] I hope will come, I’ll be able to inspire them, inspire the next generation, inspire the smaller players that they also can achieve a big dream, even if it’s not only in tennis but it can also be in different sports too.”