Canadian teenager Leylah Annie Fernandez shaved nearly 100 places off of her WTA ranking to begin 2020, highlighted by her first WTA final at the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL presentado por HSBC in Acapulco in just her fifth tour-level main draw appearance.
With those experiences firmly in the review mirror, the 17-year-old is now taking the time to focus on something where speeding up is much less encouraged.
“I’ve been practicing driving with my parents. It was hard in the beginning, because I was scared being behind the wheel,” she said with a laugh, speaking with wtatennis.com by phone from her Florida home late last month.
“Right now, I’m more comfortable… and I’m not as indecisive as before. Just having my family in the car has been helping me. It’s been a fun experience with them. I’m close to getting my license in a few months, so hopefully, I can take the test... and get my license soon when everything starts again.”
Becoming a licensed driver and graduating high school — Fernandez is working towards her diploma in an online program that she’s been a part of for the past three years — are the most pressing milestones in the 17-year-old's life off the court, but the first two-and-a-half months of 2020 also saw the left-hander achieve several firsts in her life on tour.
Even in the season's first weeks, word about the Canadian's promise was already spreading: in January, the reigning French Open junior champion successfully qualified for the Australian Open to start the year — in her maiden professional Slam.
Three straight-set victories over Patricia Maria Tig, Mayo Hibi and Danielle Lao — all of whom were ranked ahead of her at the time — in the qualifying rounds of the Australian Open earned the then-World No.207 her first berth in a major main draw.
“The experience was one-of-a-kind. It’s the first Grand Slam I’ve ever played on the professional side, and I was happy that I got in on my own merits and not with a wildcard,” Fernandez said.
"I've always believed that I was capable of playing against these players and just to be able to win in straight sets... it helps a lot with what I've been doing. It's been hard, a hard two sets, but I'm taking one step at a time. The hard work that I've been doing and putting in, it's paying off now.
“That was a boost of confidence. To be able to qualify was another check mark on my objectives for the year. I was just happy to get that experience to play against the Top 100, play in the main draw of a Grand Slam.
"Now, with that out of the way, we're thinking about winning a few more rounds in the main draw of a Grand Slam if I get in."
With one "first" under her belt, the teenager's second Fed Cup nomination in February led to another. With Canada down 2-0 against Switzerland headed into the second day of its qualifying tie, Fernandez was set to take on then-World No.5 Belinda Bencic with the hopes of keeping her country alive.
Facing not only her first Top 10 foe, but just her second-ever in the Top 50, the teenager more than did her part in that effort: not only did she compete well against the highest-ranked player she'd faced to date, she scored a surprise 6-2, 7-6(3) victory to earn Canada's sole point in the tie.
"Going on the court, I always believed that I could beat a player from the Top 100, Top 10, Top 5, so going in, I still believed that I could win and bring the team up. I was trying to help the team as much as possible," Fernandez reflected.
"I was just happy that I was able to play against Bencic. I went on the court and tried to play my best, and it worked. As the match went on, I had more and more confidence. I wasn't afraid of making mistakes or hitting my winners, and that paid off."
Calling Fernandez "really solid and mentally strong," then-World No.5 Bencic was complimentary of her teenaged foe, saying, “She really deserved the win. Already, she’s a great player at 17 years old," and Canadian captain Heidi el Tabakh assessed Fernandez's performance "one of the best matches she’s ever played."
"I've watched [Bencic] play on TV many times and she was one of my role models, actually — in the way she plays, the way she is the aggressor on court. That's what I tried to do against her, and it worked," Fernandez added.
"Just to hear her say that about me, it's amazing. I've just been trying to reproduce that every day, in the same way that my coaches have been telling me to do.
"It was a special experience. We have a great team, with Bianca Andreescu, Eugenie [Bouchard] and Gaby [Dabrowski] — they're all great players. We were very confident with the team and confident in our capabilities.
"We just had a little bit of bad luck... but we still had the confidence that we could've won the tie. We were happy with how we played, what we showed on and off the court."
Buoyed by her statement victory, the Canadian next headed to Mexico — and though the swing ultimately proved momentous by its end, Fernandez and her team were unsure when, or if, it could even start.
"I honestly didn't think I was going to be in Acapulco. We weren't sure if I was going to get the wildcard for the qualifying," she said.
"The day before I was going to travel [there], we were waiting for the news... and I was super happy when they called and said yes.
"We just packed up our things and left, and when the days started, I just wanted to take one match at a time, use the momentum from the Bencic match into Mexico and try to reproduce that level of tennis in every match."
Ultimately, Fernandez scored six straight-set victories en route to reaching the final, which included a final-round qualifying win over former Top 20 player Varvara Lepchenko; a second-round win over recent rival Nao Hibino, whom she'd had several thrilling clashes with previously; and fellow teenager Anastasia Potapova, also a former junior Grand Slam winner.
While Fernandez was taking care of business, the rest of the draw was setting her up for a breakthrough. Five of the tournament's top eight seeds lost in the opening round, and Fernandez was one of six unseeded players to reach the quarterfinals.
"I wasn't looking at the draw, but I kept hearing whispers and rumors of how the draw 'opened up,' but for me, I tried to block all that out and focused on the match that was to come," she said.
"Playing against Hibino, I knew that was going to be a super tough match, with the history that we've had. I was happy that I was able to be more solid in my game, cutting down on the mistakes.
"Against Potapova, she's another great player and she's also in the Top 100. She's proven herself on the junior circuit and also on the professional tour, she's doing that too. I was happy to finally get the opportunity to play against her and to beat her.
"To play at the same level that I'd been playing at all tournament, it was a great confidence boost and a great way to open my eyes that I can compete with these players and make it into the finals."
In her seventh match of the week, the teenager performed admirably in uncharted territory before ultimately falling to No.7 seed Heather Watson in a thrilling three-set championship, 6-4, 6-7(8), 6-1.
Fernandez came from a set and a break down to force a final set, and ultimately saved a staggering nine match points before falling in two hours and 46 minutes.
"It was a tough match. I'm not going to lie: it was one of the toughest matches I've played," the Canadian confessed.
"I had a slow start and a slow start in the second set, too. I was just trying to fight through the emotions, the atmosphere that was happening — that it's a final, wanting to win but forgetting that it's my first final, and just taking it one point at a time.
"I had four set points to close out the second set and couldn't do it in the first four. [When] she has four match points, the only thing I thought about was trying to stay calm, that it's only one point at a time, and not to think about the end result — just about what was happening right now.
"All the training, the mental training, what I've been doing back home, was paying off in the whole tournament — so I wasn't too concerned that it was going to fail me in the final in those moments. I was happy to win the tiebreak, and going into the third, I just made one too many mistakes that gave her back the momentum."
Despite finishing as the runner-up, Fernandez charmed the public with an emotional speech after the match delivered in Spanish — one of three languages that she speaks in addition to English and French.
"I felt their love, their love for the sport, and just the love of competition," she said. "Being there, because I speak Spanish helps a little bit. I felt a little bit more of the audience on my side.
"Just having people watching my match and enjoying their time, that's one of the reasons why I play tennis: to show them what I'm capable of and just to enjoy the beauty of sports."
Fernandez's form kept up in a quarterfinal showing in Monterrey, where she earned her first career victory over a former Grand Slam champion in a second-round comeback against Sloane Stephens before falling in a tight match to top seed an eventual champion, Elina Svitolina.
Though she's let her tennis do the talking thus far, it was the presence of a Slam champion whom she didn't face — the returning Kim Clijsters, who played the second tournament of her return at the event — that ultimately left Fernandez speechless.
"Honestly, I was too shy to talk to her. She's a great legend, and the first time I saw her in person, I just kept looking at her with big eyes and I couldn't produce any words," Fernandez said, suppressing another laugh.
"When I heard the news that she was playing Monterrey, I was telling my coaches that I wanted to play her in the first round. When I was young, I remember watching her in the finals at the Rogers Cup [Clijsters won the title in 2005]. I was just hoping to play her or practice with her, and playing her in a real match would be a dream come true.
"Watching her play, and how she acts on and off the court, it's what a true champion is and that's how I'm trying to act... I'm happy that she's back on court, on the circuit and on the WTA and maybe one day, I can play against her!"
With Fernandez and her peers' rankings now frozen until the tour resumes, the World No.118 is hoping to use all of experience and knowledge that she gained from her performances to-date to set her up for more success whenever tennis begins again.
"Looking back, I've learned a lot that I didn't get the opportunity to learn from the junior circuit or from ITF [tournaments]," Fernandez said.
"I've seen how the level is, week in and week out. I didn't have the experience of playing night matches every day, going to bed at 1:30 in the morning and then playing the same day at night. Just having that experience, I feel like I've matured and learned a lot about myself and how I should act off court.
"I feel like I can improve on perfecting my game as always... and trying to reproduce what I showed in these weeks again and again, every day, without any doubts."