As the 2019 tennis season reaches its end, one of the stories that defined the sport this year is the sensational surge by the women and men of Canada. From the breakthrough season of Bianca Andreescu to the emergence of the men's team as Davis Cup contenders, Canadian players reached never-before-seen heights over the last calendar year.
Included within that surge is 17-year-old Quebecois Leylah Fernandez, who completed the first half of the 2019 season by winning one of the crown jewels of the junior circuit, then powered through new successes at the Challenger level during the back half of the season to reach a career-high ranking and set herself up for an even stronger 2020 at the pro level.
"It gives me a lot of confidence," said Fernandez, regarding a breakout season where she rose over 200 spots in the WTA singles rankings over the year, sitting just outside the Top 200 as the new season beckons. However, the young Canadian admits that even if her ranking had stayed stagnant, she would be equally assured that her path is sound.
"I believe in myself and I believe what I’m doing up to now is going to help me in the future," said Fernandez. "With the ranking going up, that’s just a bonus...It gives me a lot of confidence that I’m on the right track and I can keep going even further.”
Already a Top 15 junior at the end of 2018, Fernandez reached the pinnacle of the 18-and-unders in 2019, posting her best-ever results at the junior Grand Slams to announce herself as one of the rising stars of the WTA. The Montreal native reached the final of the Australian Open in January, but that was only a precursor to her triumph in Paris, when she claimed the girls' singles title at Roland Garros.
"At the French Open junior final, the conditions weren’t on our side," Fernandez recalled. "It was windy, it was raining. But that match was very important to me, I really wanted a Grand Slam [in] juniors, and I got it, so I was super happy about that." With those results in her ledger, Fernandez eventually reached No.1 in the ITF junior rankings by September.
However, by the time she hit junior No.1, Fernandez had already begun to ramp up her results at professional level. She claimed her first Challenger title in July, emerging victorious at Gatineau in her home province of Quebec. "It was great to have the crowd with me, and they were there the whole way, so it was awesome," Fernandez said about her Gatineau run, which she identifies as a highlight of the year.
More Challenger success followed, particularly in Canada, where she reached the final at Granby and the semifinals of the top-level ITF event in Vancouver, propelling her ranking to new heights.
"Playing in Canada is special," said Fernandez, who gets even more enthused when she is playing near her home of Montreal. "The community [in Quebec], I feel like it’s a lot closer and stronger. When there’s someone from Quebec who has good results, they will always come and support, and be behind me, and give me more momentum going into a match.”
CHAMPION! 🏆— Tennis Canada (@TennisCanada) July 21, 2019
Less than 24h after claiming the doubles trophy, 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez is the singles champion as well, downing compatriot Carson Branstine 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 for her first pro singles title.
Congrats, Leylah Annie! #ClashofCanadians pic.twitter.com/OB3MJF3iOU
Support has been a common feeling for many of this year's breakout young stars from The North. 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu on the WTA joined 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime and 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov on the ATP as new global superstars, as they each had stratospheric career-best results.
"To have Bianca Andreescu, Felix, and Denis do well on the WTA and ATP Tours is great for Canadian junior tennis in Montreal, Toronto, anywhere," an ebullient Fernandez said. "They gave us confidence that, yes, we can win Grand Slams, we can go to bigger tournaments, so it’s great."
Fernandez also credits by name WTA stars Rebecca Marino and Eugenie Bouchard and ATP stalwart Milos Raonic as spurring on the success of the under-21 set in Canada. "They put big steps forward for us to believe that we can do more," said the teenager. "They’ve helped us."
Despite the strong results Fernandez posted during the season, the teenager has always had a more holistic perspective on her career, rather than just focusing on the binary nature of wins and losses. "Every match was important, and they were [all] special. My dad always told me that I remembered all my matches, win or lose."
"It’s not really about the results or about the matches, but how you learn from your mistakes, what do you remember in that specific point, were you nervous or not," said Fernandez, who stated that the key to her advancement is applying what she works on in training to her matches. "If I keep going and keep improving, I don’t really look at the results, more how I’m improving in my tennis game, so that’s why I think I remember all my matches."
"Finals or first round, the result is something that I can learn from," Fernandez added. "Even if I lost in the first round of the Rogers Cup [to eventual semifinalist Marie Bouzkova], I learned a lot, and I saw how much further I can go than what I am doing right now. It was great to have that opportunity that Tennis Canada gave me.”
I had the most incredible time in Mexico City! Swipe ➡️ for some of my favorite moments... meeting the 🐐 , @rogerfederer, & @piso21music, and watching the amazing matches at @laplazamexico! 🇲🇽 pic.twitter.com/4PlYiEsKz0— leylahfernandez (@leylahfernandez) November 24, 2019
To maintain her momentum as she moves into the new season, Fernandez has increased the physicality of her off-season training. "The training is a little bit longer and harder every other year," she said. "To get to the next step, you have to up the training, up the hours, up the intensity. That’s what we did this year, and that’s what we’ll keep doing for the next off-season, the next few weeks, the next few months.”
"When I started in the pro Challengers [in 2018], I noticed that everything was going faster and it was stronger, so during the off-season we focused on that next level, on the pace of the ball and how everything came back, and how the women fight for every point," Fernandez stated. "I think that’s what I improved a lot in the past year.”
Nevertheless, Fernandez made sure to take some well-deserved time off during the holiday season, especially to spend time with her family, "which is very important for me. The fun times with them give me more energy and motivation to keep going. They’ve helped me a lot in the whole journey."
She also made time to pick up some classes involving a new activity -- ballroom dancing. "I’ve heard a lot of players do ballroom dancing as a hobby!"
I wanted to share a clip with my sister, Bianca from our dance show last week! We’ve been learning Swing at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio and we’re loving it! Dancing in this showcase advanced us to a new level! 🥰 pic.twitter.com/9Tp7MQ7gH7— leylahfernandez (@leylahfernandez) December 23, 2019
Fernandez will now step lively into the 2020 season, as she heads to the southern hemisphere for the Down Under swing. She hopes to eke into the Auckland qualifying entries to open the year, but whether she plays in New Zealand or not, she plans to play the qualifying at the Australian Open, which will be her first-ever professional appearance in a Grand Slam event.
"Since I was very young, I’ve always wanted to play in the Grand Slams, in the big stadiums and playing in front of a big crowd," Fernandez stated. "Being in the qualies of the Australian Open is one of the dreams come true for me. So just going there and having fun and imposing my game and getting a few rounds under my belt, that would be amazing.”
Fernandez's main goal in 2020 is to stay fit for the entire season. "To be healthy mentally, emotionally and physically throughout the whole year would be great." Beyond that, she also would like "to finish Top 100 on the WTA. Just to be consistent every tournament, win a few rounds, get into the quarters and semis of tournaments would be awesome to achieve that goal."
If we've learned anything from 2019, never count out a Canadian.