For a professional tennis player, a racquet is the tool of the trade -- the choice hardware that pays the bills. But for a few weeks this summer, Leylah Fernandez was forced to suffer through a painful separation from her Babolat Pure Aero.
“I was trying to will my way back to the tennis court, and my dad was saying, `No. Don’t do that,’” Fernandez said Saturday from Toronto. “I accepted that this was going to take a while -- that I just needed to hang up my racquets for a little bit, hide them in the closet, try not to look at them.
“It was one of those moments that I had to master.”
When you’re only 19, patience is rarely a virtue. After suffering a Grade 3 stress fracture in her right foot at Roland Garros, the US Open finalist struggled to master those emotions that came with a serious injury. Like Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin and other colleagues learned recently during lengthy sabbaticals, it isn’t easy.
“Doctor told me just yesterday that I have the green light to play. My foot is 100% healed.” -@leylahfernandez— Tennis Canada (@TennisCanada) August 5, 2022
Leylah opens her #NBO22 campaign against a qualifier and could meet top seed Iga Świątek in round three pic.twitter.com/ECzHbibFKM
“Since Roland Garros it has been a roller coaster,” Fernandez said. “All my emotions. I was sad, heartbroken after a few days and then I came back home. And then got more bad news from the doctor that it was a stress fracture and you should not be putting any weight on it.
“The happiest moment was when I was able to take my boot off. The doctor said, ‘You can take your boot off, but you won’t be ready for the exhibition in D.C.’ So I was happy for five seconds, sad for the next 20 minutes.”
Fernandez was even happier a few days ago when her doctor gave her the green light to return to competition after more than two months away from the game. She’s the No.13 seed in the loaded field at the National Bank Open presented by Rogers and will play a qualifier in the first round. The good news? The Montreal native is back home in Canada, in front of familiar fans, family and friends.
The bad? She’s in the absurdly talented top quarter of the draw -- along with No.1 Iga Swiatek, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, multi-major winners Garbiñe Muguruza and Osaka as well as Olympic singles gold medalist Belinda Bencic.
“I am feeling great, feeling happy that I’m back on court,” Fernandez said. “The foot is great. It feels like a brand new foot. We’ve just been trying to accept the situation and I think we’ve been doing a great job in understanding that this is a bad moment. But at least we’re spending this bad moment as a family and seeing it as kind of a silver lining.”
There were a few weeks of hopping up and down on her left foot, another few when walking was limited and another spell with a protective boot. Fernandez enjoyed the bonus time with her family, the ability to watch more television than usual and -- this is a first -- the satisfaction that comes from reading a good book.
“In the past, I was hard-headed and did not want to read books,” she said. “The past few weeks I’ve been reading more and enjoying it -- that was definitely surprising.”
She’s always been a fan of true detective crime stories on television and is now into reading the “Girl, Missing” series.
“I always try to solve the case before the show ends,” Fernandez said. “Most of the time I’m wrong. Using a thinking process, trying to figure things out, the same way I would use on the tennis court, figuring out problems.”
Fernandez is part of a formidable group of players born after the turn of the new century that is transforming tennis. Swiatek, who won 37 consecutive matches earlier this year, was born in 2001. Emma Raducanu, the winner of that US Open championship match, and Fernandez both came along in 2002. Coco Gauff, a French Open finalist this year at 18, was born in 2004.
According to Fernandez, their individual successes help create a collective synergy they can all tap into.
“We’ve all gone through that phase of going through juniors, losing [WTA matches] and coming back up,” Fernandez said. “Following along from afar, I would see Coco doing amazing things, Iga doing amazing things, and that definitely motivated me, `OK, I want to do that.’
“So it’s a great dynamic between all of us. Because we see it as an opportunity to better the sport and motivate other young girls to achieve their own dreams. Not necessarily in tennis, but other professions. It can be soccer, engineering, whatever they decide to do.
It wasn’t that long ago Fernandez was trying to achieve her dream in tennis. Most of her 2019 season was spent playing ITF tournaments around Canada and in places like Waco, Texas, Claremont, California and Bonita Springs, California. But that August, the 16-year-old was granted a wild card into the main draw in Toronto. It ended quickly, with a 6-0, 6-1 loss to Marie Bouzkova.
“Back then I was just in awe seeing all these professionals,” Fernandez said. “I remember one moment, seeing Venus walking past me. I remember thinking, `OMG, Venus Williams just passed me.’ And then sharing the court with Simona Halep. I was nervous. I did not know how to talk to her during doubles. It was one of those introductions to the tour.”
Reaching the US Open final a year ago was a watershed moment for Fernandez, and she’s eager to produce some comparable results. It’s easy to forget that she reached the quarterfinals earlier this year at Roland Garros before that foot injury occurred. Her patience, once again, will be tested as she attempts to regain her footing among the elite players.
“I think I’m just going to try and enjoy my time on court and, secondly, see how I feel physically and mentally,” Fernandez said. “Because practicing I’m feeling great, but a tennis match is a whole new world. Hopefully, everything goes well.
“We can just get better tournament by tournament. Hopefully, by the US Open, I’ll be ready. But that’s in a long, long time.”