Leylah Annie Fernandez is only 5 feet-4, so she sometimes flies under the radar.
“From the beginning I was very underestimated, from school to tennis, even to football,” he said. “Nobody thought he could be a striker on a football team. Nobody thought I could be the smartest guy in the class, but I just like to prove that people are wrong.”
The seventeen year old from Laval, Que., Is rapidly rising in the world of tennis. So far this season Fernandez has qualified for her first major, made her first WTA final, beat a top five and ate a Grand Slam champion.
Fernandez started the year at no. 209 and in a few months it has risen to n. 118. Of those ranked in front of her, only the sixteen-year-old American “Coco” Gauff is younger.
“Everyone wants a large stereotyped receiver,” said Jorge Fernandez, father and coach of Leylah Annie. “Everyone wants a stereotypical quarterback, everyone wants it. I look at Tom Brady, who was in the news, the career he had and how he was chosen (in the sixth round of the project). You look at everyone and I always put ourselves in the head” Being unique, being different, it’s an advantage and people don’t understand who you are, you’re an enigma, it’s a problem for people because they can’t understand you “and a lot of the experts are too short-sighted”.
TSN met father and daughter for a long FaceTime interview from their Florida training base this week. The couple provided information on how the crafty southpaw was able to make such a smooth transition to the professional world.
The seeds of success were planted in the low season.
The low season
After earning the junior French Open title last June, Fernandez played mainly on the ITF circuit, winning an event in Gatineau, reaching the final in Granby, the semifinals in Vancouver and the final in Waco, Texas, among other results .
The team grew in the off-season, with Romain Deridder added as co-coach and Mark Wellington who helped with fitness.
“We got together and said, ‘We are going to take this little southpaw through hell on earth,'” Jorge recalled, “and we are going to be ready for the Australian Open with the best mentality and the best of it all. that he could have been seventeen. “
Part of the focus was on being more offensive on the pitch, which is something Leylah Annie learned that she needed from her ITF experience.
“I saw last year’s level and how different it was,” he said. “I think we have done a good job in this aspect and also physically I am getting stronger and faster, so it has been a great help.”
January 14-21 in Melbourne
First qualifying round – def. (108) Patricia Maria Tig 6-2, 6-3
Second qualifying round – def. (172) Mayo Hibi 6-4, 6-4
Third qualifying round – def. (200) Danielle Lao 7-5, 7-5
First round – lost to (62) Lauren Davis 4-6, 2-6
After falling into the first qualifying round at her season opening event in New Zealand, Fernandez modeled her first turn of the year in Melbourne. Without losing a set, the teenager qualified for her first major.
“What really stood out was the feeling of finally being able to play in a professional Grand Slam tournament,” said Leylah Annie. “For the first time I was able to say to my father:” I am here as a professional, not as a junior or as a fan. “So it was a good feeling. The three rounds were difficult battles and being able to qualify is It was an incredible moment. It was a moment I don’t think I will forget. And now is the time to focus on the next target on the list and this is winning rounds in the main Grand Slam draw. “
Jorge, who also trains younger daughter Bianca Jolie, was not in Australia.
“I was very proud of what he accomplished, because you can be prepared on the training ground, but then you go and get the shocks, the nerves, the expectations and this sets you off,” said Jorge, a former soccer player. “And, as we know, tennis matches are determined by three or four key points and I think he managed everything very well. From the coaching point of view, I was very happy. I give her a three out of four. Expecting her to win a another round in the main draw and that would have been the icing on the cake. “
Jorge always wears two hats: coach and dad.
“From Dad’s perspective, look, I can’t stop saying how he keeps surprising me,” he said. “The hotter it gets in the kitchen the more it doesn’t want to leave. So, it has shown me that I’m on the right track, not only as a tennis professional, but also as an ambassador of this sport … You must have this type of 360 ° vision and to be able to manage them all together. So, from a father’s point of view, I am looking at a seventeen year old who is not doing normal things that another seventeen year old is doing. There are great juniors all over the world, but very few are able to do. that little transition because of all the little things that come together. So, as a father, I’m still flabbergasted. It’s a great start. I would never have imagined in my wildest dream that I would have received that phone call that “I qualified in a Great Slam. “Okay, a 250 [level event] I understand, you know, but a big slam? Yes, it was definitely one of those moments that I myself will never forget and I hope to tell my grandchildren, his children, what it would have been like in the future. “
Enter Leylah Annie.
“For a long, long time,” he says laughing. “Not soon.”
“Twenty years,” says Jorge with a smile.
Fed Cup qualifiers
February 7-8 in Biel, Switzerland
First game – lost to (68) Jil Teichmann 6-7, 4-6
Second game – def. (5) Belinda Bencic 6-2, 7-6
With Bianca Andreescu and genius Bouchard sidelined due to an injury, Fernandez stepped up his country during a Fed Cup draw in Switzerland, which led to another watershed moment.
With Canada clinging to life after losing the first two tires, Fernandez shocked Belinda Bencic.
“I always believed I could beat anyone,” said Leylah Annie, “but to be able to beat Belinda, one of the five best players, in the Fed Cup, drawing away, it was one of those moments when I stopped and I just said, “Wow, the hard work I’ve been doing since the beginning is paying off.” I think this opened my eyes. I said, “I have to keep going, keep working harder, keep listening to my coaches and try to do better next time. “”
That’s right, Fernandez wasn’t satisfied yet, because Canada dropped the tie 3-1.
February 24-29 in Acapulco
First qualifying round – def. (122) Lizette Cabrera 6-3, 6-1
Second qualifying round – def. (171) Varvara Lepchenko 6-3, 6-3
First round – def. (82) Nina Stojanovic 6-4, 6-1
Second round – def. (71) Nao Hibino 6-3, 6-0
Quarter final – def. (97) Anastasia Potapova 6-3, 7-5
Semi-final – def. (270) Renata Zarazua 6-3, 6-3
Final – lost to (69) Heather Watson 4-6, 7-6, 1-6
The best Fernandez tournament has almost never happened. She wasn’t even in the Mexican Open qualifying draw until a few days before it started.
“He was about to enter his rankings,” explained Jorge, “but it wasn’t quite there, so they were trying to convince us to fly out there and go to access [and wait to see if something opened up] and I just refused. I said, ‘No, we will continue to train. We’re fine. We will prepare for the next tournament. “”
Mexican wireless telecommunications company Telcel sponsors Fernandez and also the Acapulco tournament, which has led to a political turnaround behind the scenes. In the end Fernandez got a joker in qualifying and came with only a couple of days in reserve.
“It says a lot about our training and the preparations we put in and it says a lot about Leylah’s execution and mentality that we did our best and it was a great opportunity,” said Jorge. “It was one of those tournaments that, in November, December, we said,” It would be really nice if we could get in here, “and we look for it and say,” This is an important tournament. We are not yet a peak, but this is where we want to do well. “And it exceeded expectations, even if we were not happy to lose in the final.”
A smiling Leylah Annie quickly adds “We are never happy to lose.”
The game that stood out was the semifinal when Fernandez faced the hometown hero Renata Zarazua. Fernandez was the favorite on paper, but not in the stands, which can be a difficult proposition.
Jorge had been to El Salvador to coach Bianca Jolie, who had lost in the quarterfinals to his event. Once Leylah Annie made it to the semifinal in Mexico, Jorge’s parental instinct entered. He booked a flight and after only a couple of hours of sleep he went to the airport.
“I said, ‘Look, there are going to be three people cheering you on in this crowd,” said Jorge. “I just wanted her to feel support, which wasn’t alone against all these other people.”
This was a great moment for the home nation since Zarazua was the first Mexican WTA semifinalist after Angelica Gavaldon in 1993.
“There were nearly 8,000, 9,000 people in the stands and they weren’t exactly following the tennis label,” Jorge recalled. “The conversation with her at the beginning was: ‘Absorb this, because this is a great thing that is happening, this is what we want. Whether they are cheering for you or against you, it does not matter, it does not matter it matters, why are you by participating in something exceptional for sport and you happen to be part of it. “”
“Just the fact that the audience cheered on me, sometimes cheering for me, made my heart beat faster,” said Leylah Annie.
A hallmark of Fernandez’s game is his mental strength and that unstoppable nature was on display against Zarazua. But after leaving the final to Heather Watson, Fernandez eventually blinked during the presentation of the trophy when he made a speech.
“When I mentioned my mother and sisters, who sacrificed a lot for me and my tennis career, I just highlighted the sadness [about the loss] and then also all the loving emotions I felt for them, the doors were open and I started to cry, the tears flowed, but this has shown that I am also a seventeen year old who is trying to understand the professional tennis tour. Just try to be able to control the emotions during the whole tournament and then at the last minute I broke a little. But I loved the way my family supported me and that really touched my heart and that was the breaking part for me. “
Jorge saw it a little different. It was, he said, a sign of maturity.
“It’s a very lonely sport and in any sport you sacrifice a lot, but in a team sport you stay together in a war and go into battle after battle. But in this sport, you start with so many people at the tournament in the locker room, in the players’ room , and your reward is to be alone in the player room with only one other person at the end, so there is no more lonely feeling than that, “he said. “And then when you start absorbing all of this, you start to understand how much you miss your family and I think it hit her in the end. I think she’s changing the page as a teenager to understand some of the things everyone else is doing around her and it was a good time. “
Abierto GNP Seguros
March 2-8 in Monterrey, Mexico
1st round – def. (108) Stefanie Voegele 7-6, 6-2
2nd round – def. (37) Sloane Stephens 6-7, 6-3, 6-3
Quarter-final – lost to (7) Elina Svitolina 4-6, 5-7
By virtue of his great race in Acapulco, Fernandez received a special exemption for the next event in Monterrey and did not give up, posting another victory signed by eliminating the 2017 United States Open champion Sloane Stephens.
“It meant a lot,” said Leylah Annie. “She has won a Grand Slam and there is a reason for this. She is a great player. She is very talented and plays against her, the night game, the second round, is tough. I know she is hungry to win more and she has had the feeling of winning a Grand Slam, so playing against an experienced player like her was very difficult, I was a little nervous at the beginning and being able to win against her in three sets, being able to fight to the end, is it was a good feeling to increase confidence. “
Fernandez appeared running out of gas at a loss for the top seed Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals, but any chance to face a top-10 player is a learning experience.
“If I hit her with someone who hits really hard and is really powerful on any day when she’s cool, she isn’t overcome, she destroys them, because she gives them exactly the kind of ball she needs and what she loves. But the quarterfinals, the previous week’s finals, “Jorge said glancing at his daughter,” 5-foot-4 and, I’m winking here, 5-foot-5 in his head, right? “
Leylah Annie rejoices and smiles, “It’s 5 feet-6, that’s what I’m thinking.”
“Yes, and I’m 6-foot-1,” said Jorge, who isn’t much of a 6-foot-1. “I am always evaluating each game and the Svitolina game also showed some things we have to work on. The Bencic game was great, it was fantastic, but it was indoors. The conditions were different and they are different types of players – she plays [the ball] soon, but Svitolina gave us a different look. We are more focused in the short term on the top 10 players and what we have to do when we get the chance. What should we correct? Meeting a Svitolina in the first round is different from meeting a Svitolina in the quarterfinals. “
BNP Paribas Open
Indian Wells, California.
Fernandez requested a wildcard in Indian Wells before the event was suspended due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The family had no high hopes, as those automatic registrations usually go to players representing the country where the tournament is taking place or to high-profile stars who have gone down the rankings.
“It was a fun situation,” said Leylah Annie. “We were at dinner and we were actually talking about the joker and Indian Wells and saying I probably wouldn’t understand it.”
Jorge adds, “He was crazy. We were sitting there and we are already on plan B.”
Then came the phone call. One of the most prestigious tournaments in the world, defined by many as “the fifth largest”, was so impressed by Fernandez’s race that they were willing to extend an automatic seat in the main draw.
Of course, the emotional roller coaster took a downward turn a few days later when the organizers made the right call to unplug it. However, it was another possibility for Jorge to strengthen something.
“It is important for her to realize how difficult they are to get, so when she comes onto the pitch she doesn’t take them for granted. I always said, ‘Wild cards aren’t given, they’re earned.’ And then you earn your rankings. Once obtained, you have to do something with them. “
Still fresh in the memory bank it was a 6-0 defeat, 6-1 in Toronto last summer against Marie Bouzkova after Tennis Canada offered Fernandez a joker in the country’s biggest event.
“You can’t just introduce yourself,” said Jorge. “I mean, the biggest disappointment for me was last year when he got the Rogers Cup joker and was destroyed on the pitch. It’s not that he lost, I just felt that we didn’t take responsibility for that. wildcard really means something. So next time, when we have that toilet, oh, we’ll go all in. “
The Fernandez family is currently camped at the Boynton Beach training base, pending the pandemic.
“We train in the morning,” noted Leylah Annie. “There are public courts just around the corner, so we train maybe an hour or two and then a little physical fitness [session]But all afternoon she does her homework. “
“We stay away from people,” says Jorge. “When we say it’s a public court, it’s really in the middle of nowhere. It’s just two really battered courts that we’ve used from the start and we’ve been really isolated from everyone else, so a lot of social distance.”
And as they wait for the season to resume, a sibling rivalry has been renewed.
“I think Leylah was a little surprised at the level of tennis that her sister was pursuing,” said Jorge of their last few sessions. “Of course, he is getting tired of being his little sister and wants to beat his sister and it was good to see her. One day last week, you know, (16 years old) Bianca won, so she was floating in the air for 23 hours, right? And then the day after Leylah won, he brought his game “A” that day, and was floating in the air while the other was sulking, going around saying it would have been a little more difficult than he thought So it’s fun to see. “
The break in the game is allowing Fernandez to recharge his batteries a bit after a busy start to the season and also to get on with homework at school.
“In recent years, he finished his school year around November, December,” said Jorge. “She is working on the street, so she has to go back to the hotel and try to make up for the delay, so it was a really balancing act for her, so we will be positive about it and take full advantage of this time to try to progress on the school front” .
Leylah Annie believes she is well on her way to graduating in June.
There is much uncertainty right now as the world is dealing with the coronavirus novel. We know that there will be no tennis until at least the beginning of June and, given the global nature of the sport, the pause seems to be longer.
“We don’t have a fixed date, but what we do know is that every time we get the green light it’s anyone who runs fast and it won’t fall that he will end 2020 in a good position for 2021,” said Jorge. “That’s why our training is still very, very hard. I only cut it once a day, but once a day, you know, it’s about solving those little problems we’ve seen.
“We have had the momentum, but also other players. Some of them will return well, others will return badly. Welcome to life. This is how it works, so we are trying to be pragmatic again, to be positive and to keep. I think if it continues to do what he’s doing in practice, the day we have the green light I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a couple of quarterfinals and semifinals. It wouldn’t surprise me at all. ”
The determination in Jorge and Leylah Annie’s voice is evident. The patriarch remembers having had frustrating conversations with tennis coaches in the past, who wondered if his younger daughter could become a touring force.
“I always say, ‘Lionel Messi is not the greatest, Sidney Crosby was not the greatest. Mike Tyson was not the greatest heavyweight. Wayne Gretzky was not the greatest,’ … when he learns this professional game, watch her in the final with a heavy hitter it will be a thing of beauty, because it will be fresh, it will be fine, its timing will be impeccable. But it takes some beating before arriving there, so this is what we are working on more than anything else. “
“I’m not the biggest player,” said Leylah Annie, “not even the most powerful player, but I have the speed. I’m also accurate with my shots and that’s enough for me to beat the player who’s in front of me that day. Now, it’s just to improve the weaknesses that I have and improve every day to continue to prove them wrong to achieve the goals I set myself from the beginning. “
These goals are high: win a Grand Slam and become the number 1 in the world.
Jorge has followed Leylah Annie from the start. His vision is clear.
“I want you to fight like a player who is 900 years old in the world and is struggling to improve. We want to be humble, but we also want to be sure we can beat anyone on any given day. We want to work on having the heart of a champion, the mind of a champion and things will fall into place. “
Both are powered by critics.
“For me, personally, I have a potato chip on my shoulder, absolutely,” said Jorge. “I’m never going to retire from a fight. I guess that kind of rubbed a little on her and she’s more peaceful, more polite.”
Leylah Annie looks at her father with a smile on her face and nods, “But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”