Leylah Annie Fernandez has been preparing for this big breakthrough opportunity her entire life.
It’s not every day that one gets to beat two former US Open champions in one tournament, something that Fernandez has done in this fortnight. On Tuesday, Sept 7, she made history and continued her incredible run by booking her spot at the U.S. Open semifinals.
“I have been working hard every day since the day I started playing tennis and since the day I set my mind to being a professional,” she said. “I chose this profession and I want to enjoy it as much as possible.”
Born to an Ecuadorian dad and a Filipino mom, the Canadian teen beat two Grand Slam champions back-to-back in a couple of three-set thrillers, ousting defending champ Naomi Osaka on Friday, Sept. 4 and then dismissing Angelique Kerber two days later.
Her come-from-behind victory over fellow lefty Kerber proved that her win over Osaka was no fluke. Even the commentators like Chris Evert and James Blake didn’t think Fernandez could back her earlier win and picked Kerber to win the match, citing her experience and their 15 year age difference.
“I did have to pinch myself a little bit to see that it actually happened. I knew that my level of tennis is there, it’s just the moment of opportunity and I’m glad that I was able to get this opportunity now and I was able to showcase what I can do in front of these players,” she said in a post-match interview
The 5-foot-6 spitfire has been bringing her A-game armed with her deep arsenal including her forehand, drop shots, and cross-court angles.
Beating Osaka gave her a chance to do something she hasn’t done before, be in the Round of 16 for the first time at a Grand Slam event. A couple of days later, she moved to the quarterfinals.
For Leylah, who turned 19 on Monday, Sept. 6, it was just a matter of time.
“I expected that one day my tennis game was going to come through and that I was going to be on the big stage in front of a big crowd playing against big players and also getting the wins. I’m not surprised by anything that’s happening right now,” she said.
According to a USOpen.org feature, Fernandez celebrated her 19th birthday by digging into some cupcakes with her doubles partner, New Zealander Erin Routliffe. A little bittersweet because their quest for a doubles title ended the same afternoon. US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster presented the Canadian with a birthday gift, a signed copy of Billie Jean King’s new autobiography, “All In.”
On Tuesday, she returned to the Arthur Ashe Stadium for a semifinal berth against fifth seed and two-time Grand Slam semifinalist Elina Svitolina of Ukraine. She won after a grueling three sets punctuated by a tiebreak.
In the same post-match interview, she stressed having fun on the court and having the right mindset, taking it point by point and not thinking about winning or losing the match.
“If I’m tired, she must be exhausted. I just trusted my game, that it was going to work out,” she said, referring to Kerber.
She is also thankful to her family who has been her backbone throughout this journey.
Dad Jorge is a former football player from Ecuador. He moved to Montreal, Canada with his mother. Her mom Irene Exevea traces her roots to Ilocos Norte in the Philippines. Leylah is the middle child, she has an older sister Jodeci, a dentist, and Bianca Jolie who also plays tennis.
“Having them here, cheering me on every point has been very helpful,” she said.
Her coach, dad Jorge is with her younger sister back home but he has been calling her every day.
“In those tough moments when I’m feeling down, with their positivity, I was able to get back into it and forget about the mistake I did and just keep fighting and keep pushing through,” she said. “He’d tell me what to do, gives me a game plan and I try to execute it as much as possible.”
Road to the US Open
Fernandez turned pro in 2019 and made her Grand Slam debut in 2020 at the Australian Open. She won the French Open juniors title in 2018 her very first WTA title via the 2021 Monterrey Open six months ago.
The fearless teen has clocked in impressive wins that showed her maturity and poise along with a very likable personality, which made her a joy to watch for tennis fans who are always on the lookout for these rare Cinderella runs.
It was evident that she was having fun on the court, something that she revealed has been inculcated in her mindset from a very young age.
“Having fun on the court, I think that’s the key to anybody’s success, especially mine. If I’m not happy or if I’m putting too much pressure on myself, I start making mistakes,” she shared. “I never really take things too seriously or some things too hard. I am just having fun on anything and everything that I do.”
Her parents taught her to be mature but also to have fun and enjoy her youth. They would tell her to “let loose, have fun, eat chocolate when you want to.”
She acknowledged her family, particularly her sisters who she described as amazing and very supportive.
“Every time I’m feeling down, they were always there to bring me back up. My younger sister makes me laugh all the time,” she added.
Leylah, along with fellow teens Emma Raducanu of Great Britain and Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, have been bringing in great performances across the board, with all of them making their first Grand Slam quarterfinals.
This is the first time since 1988 with Andre Agassi and Gabriela Sabatini that three teens have made it this far at the US Open.
“Seeing all these teenagers, the youngsters doing so great at the US Open and the other tournaments too is also eye-opening I think to the world, to the tennis world, because there is not only like one group of tennis players, but there is a new wave of young generations that’s coming up, and just trying to make an impact in the tennis game as much as they can,” she said.
A Radio-Canada Sports documentary profiled the Fernandez family a couple of years ago. The documentary showed how the Fernandez family bet everything on tennis.
Jorge came to Canada at a very young age with his mother realized early on how their lives as immigrants were going to be.
“I was born in Ecuador. I came here with my mother, a story like any other immigrant. Québec really was our adoptive country,” Jorge shared. “It was very difficult in the beginning. I didn’t want my daughters’ story to be the same… I decided that this story was going to end with me.”
That decision was born out of the longing for their children to have everything to succeed in their lives.
This meant making huge sacrifices, including moving the family from Montreal to Florida when Leylah was 12 years old, where they felt they’d get access to the free tennis courts to further develop and hone the kids’ tennis games.
“The biggest sacrifice comes from Mom. She gets to see her daughters a lot less. She works full time to allow us to do the little that we do, compared to other players.” Jorge said as he looked at his wife Irene, who muttered, “It’s a big sacrifice, but it’s all worth it.”
Getting emotional at times. Jorge recalled how they invested in tennis despite not having a retirement savings plan, mortgage, or a house.
“We have nothing, honestly. What we have, we devoted it to tennis. We found ourselves in a situation where, every year, we needed to put more and more money into tennis. At a certain point, that amount became a lot more than what we had,” he shared.
Jorge answered an unequivocal yes when asked if tennis is a sport for rich people. He cited travel and lodging costs, renting courts, among others.
It is a motivating factor, something that then 16-year-old Leylah realized at an early age.
Jorge thinks that knowing this situation acts like some kind of “spark plug” in Leylah, that it gets her going and makes her say: no, I’m not giving up today.
“It’s a motivation for me to do more on the court. I know that not all young people have the privilege of having parents who push them, help them and do everything they can for them,” she said in the interview.
Fernandez is not guaranteed to take home $675,000 prize money for making the semifinals and stands to make $2.5 million if she wins the tournament.
With her brilliant groundstrokes, just the right amount of bravado and confidence, and a mindset ready for battle, Leylah Annie Fernandez made her astounding presence felt at this year’s US Open. Her sheer talent, years of training, and family support will help propel her to her lifelong dream of becoming a World Number 1 someday.