Everything you need to know about Leylah Fernandez the competitor is in her walk. Her steps are purposeful, unhesitating, a statement of intent. The 18-year-old from Montreal is going places, whether you like it or not. Lead, follow or get out of the way.
On Friday night, under the sparkling lights of the biggest tennis court in the world, the diminutive Canadian commanded the stage to defeat defending champion Naomi Osaka 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4 to advance to her first Round of 16 at a Slam.
Fernandez has been coached by her father, Jorge, a former Ecuadorian professional soccer player, since she first began tennis. Her mother, Irine, is Filipino Canadian, and she is the middle child among a trio sisters. In 2019, Fernandez won the girls title at Roland Garros and made her Top 100 debut a year later in September 2020.
Earlier this season, Fernandez won her first WTA title at the Abierto GNP Seguros in Monterrey, Mexico. It's been a steady but notably quick climb for the 5-foot-6 inch Canadian, who counts Justine Henin as her tennis idol.
After beating Osaka, Fernandez was asked on court when she believed she could pull off the upset of the tournament. Without hesitation, Fernandez said, "From the very beginning, right before the match, I knew I was able to win." She elaborated on her natural self-belief in her press conference afterward.
"From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone, anyone who is in front of me. Even playing different sports, I was always that competitive, saying I'm going to win against them, I'm going to win against my dad in soccer, even though that's, like, impossible.
"I've always had that belief. I've always tried to use that in every match that I go on. I guess today that belief came true."
WTA Insider spoke to Fernandez earlier to reflect on her path to the professional circuit and the roots of her unwavering drive, ambition and work ethic.
WTA Insider: Let's start at the beginning. How did you end up with a tennis racquet in your hand?
Fernandez: So it's always a funny story. My dad tells it the best, but, I've always wanted to play soccer since he was a soccer player. He coached soccer, so I was around it a lot. In his head, he thought I wanted to do it because he was doing it. He didn't think I did it because I loved it enough.
So he introduced me to different sports so that I can make my own decisions and tennis was one of them. He was driving back from work and went to Canadian Tire and asked the clerk if there was anything that is in any sport that doesn't have a ball that's bigger than a soccer ball. He showed them to the tennis racquet section. There were a few options like ping pong, badminton, and there are tennis racquets. And what he saw was a pink with flowers tennis racquet.
I got my very first tennis racquet and he imagined me and my sister just playing around, like in the park recreationally, and then by the end of the day, just get ice cream as a family. Just everything for fun. But, you know, a few years later, I wanted to be a pro and here we are, this incredible journey.
WTA Insider: Why did you choose tennis over soccer?
Fernandez: Well, one, I think I like that it was an individual sport and that everything falls on my shoulders, whereas a team sport - I played a lot of team sports - even if I play good, maybe a player on my team has a bad day and we lose. And I never liked losing. So I didn't want to depend on another person for the win.
But then also mainly, I just love the sport. From the first time I hit the ball, I think I just enjoyed it so much that it was the only thing I was thinking about. Even though I was playing soccer, that was the one sport in my head. I was doing soccer, but I wasn't in love with it that I wanted to continue playing.
And on the court, I'm able to create so much with the angles. It's like my own art, my own canvas.
WTA Insider: At what point did you start thinking you wanted to become a professional tennis player?
Fernandez: I think by the end of age 9, 10, I wanted to play a little bit more competitions provincially, nationally. I was pretty competitive back in Canada. And then by the age of 11, 12, that's when I was like, "OK, I want to be a professional." That's what I really want to do. I never looked back and I never second guessed myself to go back in my decisions.
I don't know why I really wanted to be a pro. I just saw it on TV and I saw the success, the enjoyment the players were giving the fans. I just saw so many great opportunities there just to have fun and enjoy the time instead of pursuing other professions.
WTA Insider: Do you remember who you were watching on TV that inspired you?
Fernandez: When I watched the French Open and Nadal was playing it. He won the tournament. After I saw him play and like the beauty of the game, I just really wanted to be a professional and try to replicate that on the tennis court and bring joy to people who are watching.
A coach was telling me that I have a very similar game to Justine Henin and I didn't know who she was. When I looked her up on YouTube, I fell in love with the sport all over again. She was my idol from then on.
WTA Insider: What role has Tennis Canada played in your development?
Fernandez: They've helped a lot, especially the past few years. But let's say in the beginning, it was a little rocky for the both of us. We wanted the same goal, but the paths that we want were not the same. So it was a little bit hard with the communication and seeing eye to eye.
But then once we realized that we want the same thing for the player - I wanted to be a professional, they wanted me to become a professional, too - we were able to find a middle ground and we were able to communicate a little bit better. They were helping me a lot. And I think that was a time when we were as a family, struggling a little bit. They didn't know what was going to happen to us and they just came in at the right time, right place.
From then on, they've been helping me with some opportunities in Canada, playing some pros, and then at the Rogers Cup. That was a great opportunity for me to learn and see where my level is at. And I definitely grew from there.
WTA Insider: What do you think was the key to getting you and your federation on the same page?
Fernandez: I think it was just a lot of communication, especially since we were, as a family, on our own. My dad was communicating a lot with the director, the women's representative for Tennis Canada. At one point they were talking so much and they noticed that we aren't as different as we thought. We have the same goals. Everybody has the same goals. We're more similar than different.
I think what they did a lot more is they just gave me more opportunities to play. The courts were hard to reserve at the time, but with their help, I was able to get more practice time or more private times with my coach. It definitely helped me with my development and with them backing me a few times, it also gave me the confidence to keep going and keep working hard.
WTA Insider: What have been the biggest challenges you've faced as you've pursued your professional career?
Fernandez: Definitely the sacrifices. You don't have a normal life. I don't have a normal teenage life to go to school, make friends, or go to prom, graduation. Those are times you see in movies and you think, oh, I want to kind of go through that and see how it is.
But I made a decision that pro was my No.1 thing and I did the necessary sacrifices to keep training and just try to improve every day. And I think the hardest part was being away from family for weeks at a time. That's definitely hard since I'm so close with my sisters. When I don't see them that much, I know I miss them, I get homesick and it gets hard emotionally.
WTA Insider: How much does winning junior Roland Garros, making your Top 100 debut and winning your first title vindicate the sacrifices you've made?
Fernandez: I think it kind of makes me feel better with the sacrifices that I have to make. I've missed so many birthdays. Like, my younger sister's birthdays, I think this is the third year in a row that I wasn't able to celebrate with her. So that was definitely hard.
But knowing that all the hard work is paying off and that I'm getting up there in the rankings and that I've won a WTA tournament, I think that gives me a little bit more confidence that one day, those sacrifices are just going to make me stronger. It's going to make me stronger emotionally and mentally to get through those times. If I'm able to get through those times then I'm able to get through a tennis match a little bit easier knowing that it's going to be very hard.
WTA Insider: We can see how determined you are on court. You're a steely competitor. Is that just your personality? Or have you had to work on it?
Fernandez: I think it's a little bit of both. I know when I was younger, when things get serious, I really want to be focused. I don't want to get distracted or anything. And when I put my mind to something, I would try to do that at 100% most of the time.
But with the sacrifices and then learning how to accept them and to just do more so that those sacrifices don't go to waste, that definitely made me stronger emotionally when the tough moments come. When the tougher moments come, when a sprinkle of doubt flows into my head, it's a little bit easier to kind of block them. But it's a mixture of both. Definitely.
WTA Insider: Your father emigrated to Canada and it sounds like you and your family have had to make a lot of tough decisions to give you a chance at success in this sport. How much has that influenced you?
Fernandez: So when he kind of transferred those values, to me, it was mainly through sports. I think that shaped me as a person.
I understand a little bit more about life, knowing that it's going to be hard for me. It's not going to be easy. I might be getting overlooked a few times here and there, and it definitely happened when I was a junior, but I was able to work harder than I ever did before, using that as fuel, as motivation. That just brought me to where I am now.
WTA Insider: Canadian tennis has been strong over the last decade. What is it like to be a part of that movement and what do you think you bring to mix?
Fernandez: Well, first of all, it's great to be able to be recognized as one of the top players for Canada. There are so many great players that have been up and coming and the players that are already up there. There's Bianca Andreescu, Eugenie, who's done so much for the sport. There's Rebecca Marino. Yeah. Then on the men's side, there's Milos, Vasek, Shapo and Felix, they're doing incredible right now. So to be able to have my name right beside them or right under them, it pushes me even more, that want I want to be with them or I even want to surpass them sometimes. It's an honor to be to have my name with them at the moment.
But honestly, I think that Canadian tennis is doing so well because it's such an international country. There are so many diverse cultures right now that are doing so well and that are representing Canada. It kind of shows too, in the amount of the game styles, the way that Tennis Canada is helping the players, too. Not only for one specific type of game, but they're accepting more players, more diversity in the game, wanting to make it more as an art and that only as a power game, which is really nice.
I don't know what I bring to the table, but hopefully, I think in the near future I can inspire kids and they can tell me how they thought I was inspiring them.
This article was originally published on September 4th.