Prior to the WTA suspending all tournaments in March due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, 17-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez was playing some of the best tennis on the Tour. In late February, the Canadian teen surprised many when she reached the final in Acapulco. Though she fell just short up against Heather Watson, losing a competitive three setter, it was nonetheless an encouraging week for the 5’4″ lefty.
Fernandez, who has already shown commendable grit as well as notable speed around the court, then made it to the quarterfinals in Monterrey, her next tournament, where it took the top-seeded Elina Svitolina to stop her. But her success on the WTA Tour, though sudden, did not come entirely out of the blue. In 2019, Fernandez finished as runner-up at the Australian Open juniors, before winning the girls’ singles title at Roland Garros.
The young Canadian talked about the high expectations she held for herself after winning the junior girls’ crown at Roland Garros last June. “I’d like to win all the tournaments, all the Grand Slams, all the tournaments in the world. But Roland Garros is very special for me because it was the first Grand Slam I watched on TV. So being able to win here as a junior player is very special for me,” she said in her post match presser.
She started playing tennis at the age of five with the encouragement of her father, Jorge Fernandez, and is a keen student of the game. The 17-year-old says she’s learned a lot from following and studying some of the greats.
“I like very much Justine Henin, [Rafael] Nadal, [Roger] Federer, as well as [Novak] Djokovic. They have different styles, but they always have the same qualities: hard work, fighting spirit, and any point is like it was the last,” Fernandez pointed out. On the tennis courts, Fernandez tries to apply those same qualities to her own game saying: “I believe it’s a fighting spirit. I don’t let go. All points are important to me from the first to the last. It was like it was the last thing to do. And even though I’m losing, I’m never going to let go.”
Also after her triumph at Roland Garros, Fernandez talked about her young Canadian peers; and how their success has inspired and motivated her.
“It’s very inspiring that Bianca (Andreescu) was able to win Indian Wells……Last year I was able to practice with Bianca a few times and played against her. I have seen how everything is, and I’m happy to get those opportunities,” she said.
Of course Andreescu would go on to win the Rogers Cup and then the US Open – scoring victories over 23-time Grand Slam champ, Serena Williams, in both of those championship matches.
“I’m happy that Denis (Shapovalov), Felix (Auger-Aliassime), Bianca are able to do everything great and it motivates me to do better for the next couple of years and for the future.”
Fernandez – who was born in Montreal and now trains in Boynton Beach, Florida – had the chance to share the court with one of the world’s best at the Rogers Cup, where she played alongside former-world #1 and reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep in the doubles.
“I asked the tournament director about playing doubles here, and if he has someone. He recommended a few players by e-mail. And I picked Leylah because I heard that she’s very ambitious,” the 2019 Wimbledon champ said. “She just won the (junior) French Open, and I remember that I did that 10 years ago.”
In addition to acknowledging some subtle parallels in their tennis journey, Halep was also full of praise for the young Canadian. “She feels the game at the highest level. It’s a good thing. It’s a good start. So she has everything to do well in tennis,” said the two-time Grand Slam champ about Fernandez.
For her part Fernandez, was quick to express her gratitude. “I’ve just learned a lot from her. She’s a great player. And just having an opportunity to play with her is great, and I’m happy that we were able to play together,” said Fernandez
The ambitious Canadian teenager has also her sights set on enjoying success similar to Halep in the future. “For the long-term goals, I would love to play Grand Slams, win as many as I can; and be #1 in the world,” said Fernandez. While it remains to be seen whether the talented Canadian teen can reach those heights, her strong start to 2020 in her first season as a pro has been a very promising sign.
At this point, no one knows how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last and when tennis will return. But when it does eventually return, the rising young Canadian will be looking to pick up exactly where she’s left off.
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