Leylah Fernandez, coach-father look to build on her dazzling breakout year

December 16, 2021
Leylah Fernandez, coach-father look to build on her dazzling breakout year
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Leylah Fernandez took the tennis world by storm in 2021, highlighted by a run for the ages at the U.S. Open that saw her win the hearts, attention and respect of audiences across the world.

Beginning with a third-round upset of then-No. 3 Naomi Osaka, she defeated four top-20 players (three in the top five), en route to the final before falling to Toronto-born Emma Raducanu of Britain.

Despite the breakout season, which included her first Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title in March, the 19-year-old was pleased with her mental fortitude but not content with missing the mark on her lofty goals.

“I think I did a good job near the end. I was able to bounce back after difficult months and that’s what I was most proud of,” said the Laval, Que., native.

“The biggest improvement I [made] was [being] able to forget — have that mentality to forget about the past matches, forget about the past results and just focus on the tournament that’s going on right now.”

WATCH | Leylah Fernandez, father join CBC Sports to discuss her breakout year:

Leylah Fernandez, father join CBC Sports to discuss her breakout year

Canadian tennis star Leylah Fernandez along with her father and coach Jorge Fernandez join CBC Sports’ Vivek Jacob to look back on the year that was, discuss their relationship on and off the court and look ahead to the 2022 tennis season. 14:18

Beginning the year as the 88th-ranked women’s singles player with goals of cracking the top 10 by the end of the year, the now-No. 24-ranked Fernandez has always believed in her ability to reach heights that she could only see for herself — and her father Jorge, once a professional soccer player in South America, who is also her coach.

“When we decided to pursue the professional career, we wanted to be No. 1,” Jorge said. “Of course a lot of people will say you’re crazy, a lot of people would laugh at that goal because of many reasons. But for us, it’s what we believe in. We really believe it, we breathe it.”

The relationship between the two is well-documented but the synergy that’s been created is a byproduct of how they feed off each other.

“She’s quite a character. She’s very unbelievably happy all the time, unbelievably loving all the time,” he said. “She cares a lot about what’s going on and I think sometimes I get the impression that people think that maybe it’s just kind of in the moment. But it’s not, it’s constant. Leylah is the same everyday … she’s very genuine.

“When you see it everyday, I think it motivates you to be a better person just in general. If this girl who’s working like crazy can still find good in everything, so can we.”

Leylah Fernandez and her father Jorge, who has used what he learned as a soccer pro in South America to help his daughter in her quest to be the best in the world. (Courtesy Fernandez family)

For Fernandez, it’s the confidence she finds in her father’s presence that helps motivate her.

“He’s my greatest support. He gives me strength and every time I look at him, I know I have the confidence to do anything,” she said.

“I have the confidence to tackle any problem that’s in front of me and no matter the result, everything will just be fine at the end of the day.”

WATCH | Fernandez captures 1st WTA title at Monterrey Open:

Leylah Annie Fernandez claims 1st career WTA title

Leylah Annie Fernandez of Laval, Que., defeats Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic 6-1, 6-4 in the final of Monterrey Open. The 18-year-old did not drop a set for the entire tournament. 5:22

Working toward future coaching change

As beneficial as their relationship is on both a personal and professional level, it isn’t Jorge’s aim to be her coach forever.

Aside from helping his daughter target everything she dreams of right now, he wants her to be independent with a team of her own in the near future.

“I have a daughter who believes in my ability to get the best out of her, who believes in my ability to get the best tennis for her,” Jorge said.

“As a father, I want her to be independent and I hope that in the next couple of years she will have a full-time coach, and she’ll be able to be a full professional with her own coaching team, with her own fitness team, and tackle the world of tennis.”

Through all of her early accomplishments, the goals for the upcoming season have not been lost on the duo.

“My dad and I, that’s No. 1 that’s on our wall, saying, ‘every year, we have to finish with great health and to still have that love for the sport,'” she said. “Because if you can’t have that love for the sport, it’s so hard to restart training, to keep pushing the limits to our physical ability [and] mental ability, for the next season.

“No. 2, tennis-wise, get to finish the year top 10, play the WTA Finals. Afterwards, win a few WTA titles — 250s, 500s 1000s, and obviously I need to get that Grand Slam under my belt.”

WATCH | Fernandez’s friends, family unsurprised by her success:

Friends and family of Leylah Fernandez say she’s proof that hard work pays off

Fernandez, 19, took New York by storm and by surprise, defeating defending champion Naomi Osaka — but Montrealers who have known her from childhood say it was a long time coming.​ 2:51

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