After breaking through into the Woman’s Tennis Association (WTA) top 100 in her debut season, all eyes are on Leylah Fernandez as Canada’s youngest emerging female tennis star. Fernandez delivered such a solid and consistent 2020 performance that, only one year after being named Canadian junior player of the year, she has been named Canadian female player of the year.
The 18-year-old left-hander made her WTA Tour debut in January when she qualified for the Australian Open. Since then, she has cut her ranking by more than half by going from a 207 ranking at the beginning of the year to now sitting in the 88th spot. This makes her the second highest ranked Canadian female tennis player, behind 2019 phenomenon Bianca Andreescu.
“It feels great,” Leylah told Faze of her big jump in WTA rankings. “Hopefully I can continue that next year in the 2021 season, but I’m extremely happy with my season this year. I started off well, continued a little bit after the pandemic, and hopefully it will keep going that way.”
One week into her pro debut, she defeated Belinda Bencic, then ranked number five, in the Fed Cup. Weeks later, she made her first final on the WTA Tour in Acapulco, Mexico.
“It was only my second time representing the country on the professional side,” Leylah said of her Fed Cup experience. “I had the opportunity to play alongside Bianca Andreescu, Eugenie Bouchard, and also Gaby [Gabriela] Dabrowski. They’re all great players. They’ve encouraged me, and they gave me some great advice, and I think with that experience, it helped me for the rest of the year.”
The Montreal native is the second highest ranked female tennis player under the age of 18, behind Cori “Coco” Gauff. Though Leylah is new to the WTA Tour, she’s not a stranger to winning.
Last year one of her most notable achievements was her junior Grand Slam win. This made a historic mark in Canadian tennis as she was the first Canadian female tennis player to win a junior Grand Slam since Eugenie Bouchard in 2012. With that being her last tournament as a junior, Leylah said that the win “helped a lot mentally.”
“I know how hard it is to transition from junior to pros. There are a lot of players who have been struggling with it, but winning a junior Grand Slam has helped me on the confidence side,” she said. “A few months later, I was able to win a few ITF [International Tennis Federation] pro tournaments, which helped a lot for the WTA. I’m happy to get those experiences in the juniors, and hopefully it will be better on the professional side.”
Prior to playing tennis, Leylah played soccer. She said she didn’t start playing tennis until she was around the age of five, but even then her dad had just introduced it to her as a recreational sport. By the time she was eight, she had fallen in love with the sport and wanted to play it at the professional level.
“I started playing a little bit more competition, and I was falling in love. I just loved the drive, and the winning feeling, and the losing feeling. I just wanted to keep going,” she said. “When I saw the professionals play on TV, I wanted to be there one day; I wanted to be in the Grand Slams, on the big stage lifting trophies; and that’s when I decided to focus more on the professional side.”
As she got older she started training longer hours and attending more tournaments, but at the age of 11, Leylah said she was starting to have doubts.
At the time, her mom had moved to California for work to help support the family and her tennis career, and though she knew it was for the best, she said it was as if “I didn’t have a mom for a few years.”
Leylah and mom.
“I had to learn how to kind of take care of the house a little bit, keep up with my studies, keep training, and keep having that motivation to keep going without having my mom there every night to kiss me and say ‘you’re great, you can keep going, just keep pushing hard,’” she said. “But I think in those times, I was very lucky to have my younger sister and my older sister be there and keep encouraging me like my mom would do. I was just lucky enough to have my sisters, and then my dad as a coach. He was able to encourage me in those tough times, especially when he saw that I was getting a little bit down on myself.”
When it comes to her dad, Leylah said that it’s great having him as her primary coach and that he’s the best coach she has ever had.
Young Leylah with her dad and sister.
“He knows how to push me and when to kind of back off so that I can figure things out on my own, and because he’s my dad, he also wants me to be independent and strong. So at the same time as being my coach, he’s teaching me about life, making my own decisions, and living by them.”
Leylah has been training in Florida, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic measures, her training has been limited. Though she isn’t able to go outside to train as often as she used to, she said she’s been spending a lot of time focusing on the fitness side of tennis. This includes quite a bit of running to help with her mental game. She adds that when it comes to tennis matches, 70 per cent of the time it’s a psychological game, so doing mental exercises is a big part of her training.
“My coaches push me very hard in training physically and mentally, like pushing me to the limit and putting the pressure on so that in a tennis match, it can be a little easier that I know what to do in those moments, and I won’t be pushed around by my emotions and by the pressure of the moment.”
For the upcoming season, Leylah is in contention to play at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and she said that one of her goals is to represent Canada on the international stage. For her future in the WTA, she said that she’s setting her eyes on winning as many Grand Slams as she can and to hopefully one day hold the number one ranking in the world.
“We take this one year at a time and one month a time, and at the very end, one match at a time. We’ve got to keep working hard, keep being humble, and hopefully, the results will come; but I’m happy right now with my career, and hopefully our future will be a lot better.”
PHOTO CREDIT: WorldRedEye.com @worldredeye. STYLIST, Kimberly Sussman @kimmiesussman. HMUAutumn Suna Rich, IG @Autumn_suna, Autumnsuna.com. Skin products: Azkmade.com and Chanel. Hair products: Bumble and bumble.
For more information on Leylah Fernandez, visit her WTA profile here.