Leylah Fernandez can thank sceptical teacher for her tennis success

One comment gave the US Open finalist all the motivation she needed while her father says moving to Canada paved her way

As Leylah Fernandez made her unlikely, yet swashbuckling way to the final of the US Open over the past fortnight, many things stood out. The way she wants the match on her racquet, the innate understanding of the angles that the great left-handers seem to possess and the sheer joy on her face as she racked up win after win on one of the biggest stages of all.

At 19, Fernandez has the world at her feet. In only her fifth grand slam event, she has beaten Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka, two grand slam winners and two players in the world’s top five, with flicks of that magical left wrist, with the New York crowd backing her at every turn.

Like her opponent in Saturday’s final, the 18-year-old Briton, Emma Raducanu, it is the belief, determination and more than anything else, the appreciation of what it has taken to get to this stage, that has put her on the verge of grand slam glory. As bubbly and engaging as she is off the court, the inner steel shines through.

As a child of about 10 or 11, Fernandez was told by a teacher that she should forget about wanting to be a professional tennis player and to concentrate on her studies instead. Teachers sometimes don’t realise the influence their words will have on children but in the case of Fernandez, her words acted as a stimulus.

“[It] was actually very funny – at the time it wasn’t, but now I’m laughing,” she said after her three-set semi-final win over Sabalenka. “She told me to ‘stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school’. I’m just glad that she told me that because every day I have that phrase in my head saying that I’m going to keep going, I’m going to push through, and I’m going to prove to her everything that I’ve dreamed of – I’m going to achieve them.”

Her upbringing was even more crucial. Born in Montreal to Jorge, a former footballer in Ecuador and Toronto-born Irene, herself the daughter of parents from the Philippines, Fernandez is based in Florida.

The Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash (right) is from Canada and has been in Leylah Fernandez’s box at the US Open.
The Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash (right) is from Canada and has been in Leylah Fernandez’s box at the US Open. Photograph: Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports

Like Raducanu, she is a child of immigrants and rightly proud of her heritage. A junior French Open champion in 2019, her star is on the rise. The Canadian former basketball star and current Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash was in her player box this week and she has been supported by Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, on social media.

In an interview with Canadian broadcaster TSN this week, her father explained what playing for Canada means to the family. “It means everything,” he said, in an emotional interview. “There’s a lot of talk in the news about immigrant people, and I understand nationalist sentiments, and I understand how we need to protect that, we have only so many resources, I understand that. I don’t want to get political. That’s not what I’m doing. What I’m telling you is we’re an immigrant family, and we had nothing.

“So, Canada opened up its doors, and if they wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have. And I wouldn’t have been able to give them to my daughter. So, it means a lot.”

Dig a little behind almost every successful sportsman and woman and you’ll invariably find a story of sacrifices. Fernandez’s path to this point is no different and while her father (who is also her coach) has remained home, Fernandez has been accompanied in New York by her mother, something she revealed was extra special for reasons which soon became obvious.

Fans wave after Fernandez’s semi-final success.
Fans wave after Fernandez’s semi-final success. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

“My mom had to go to California for a few years to support my family and I in the tennis world,” she said at this US Open. “That few years has been definitely hard for me because I needed a mom, I needed someone to be there for me through the age of 10 to 13.

“Every time I saw her, it was like seeing a stranger but at the same time someone so familiar. I was just very lucky to have my mom here at this tournament cheering for me and having fun with me all this time. But we’ve gone through so many things together as a family. I’m just glad that right now everything’s going on our side.”

On the evidence of the past two weeks, all the sacrifices have been worth it. Now Fernandez has the chance to fulfil her dream.


Simon Cambers

The GuardianTramp

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