After an injury at Roland Garros in May, Leylah Fernandez had an uncomfortable time away from her racquets. The 19-year-old rising Canadian tennis star couldn’t train so she thought ‘hide them in the closet, try not to look at them’.
A stress fracture in his right foot during the French Open scuttled many of his summer plans. She was unable to play at Wimbledon, the Citi Open in Washington or an exhibition against American teenager Coco Gauff. But Fernandez is expected to return this week to the only stop on the WTA’s Canadian tour, the National Bank Open in Toronto.
“It’s been a rollercoaster since Roland Garros,” said 13th-seeded Fernandez, who plays his opener on Monday night against Australian qualifier Storm Sanders.
She was “heartbroken and sad” not to compete for more than two months, stopped in the middle of another thrilling Grand Slam run. During the quarter-final in Paris, father and coach Jorge Fernandez – from the crowd – urged her to withdraw from the match, as she had been suffering from foot pain for days. But she resisted and lost to unranked Italian Martina Trevisan in a three-way match. She later learned that her foot was fractured.
Patience during recovery has been tough for the Montrealer, now based in Florida. She was on crutches for a while, then in a walking boot. But Fernandez also saw positives: extra time with his family, watching TV and devouring books, especially crime thrillers.
She’s been busy since her fierce run to the US Open final in New York last September. She defended her title in Monterey, Mexico in March. And the Canadian – of Ecuadorian and Filipino descent, who speaks English, French and Spanish – has built her business portfolio, now touting a mix of offerings including Lululemon, Morgan Stanley, Subway, Gatorade and Google.
The world No. 14 is Canada’s highest-ranked singles player. A group of local kids attending National Bank Open qualifying in Toronto this weekend had an exclusive encounter with Fernandez, as WTA tour cameras filmed their encounter. A few dozen girls were invited to the media center, where reporters usually interview players during the tournament. Each child was equipped with complete tennis equipment, from their visors to their sneakers. They had their own press conference.
The impatient girls raised their arms in the air, as if they were in school, to ask questions. They had scribbled their questions on paper and then read them aloud. Fernandez sat on the podium, examined each one carefully, and addressed each girl by name.
Fernandez told stories from his childhood, from hitting tennis balls against the wall and building forts with his sister in the basement, dodging at recess, playing many sports as a child and wanting to be a football pro like his father.
“I fell in love with it from the first ball I hit,” she told them of trying tennis.
“My dad always believed in me,” she said when asked about the most important person in her career.
And his advice for dealing with bad feelings after a loss?
“Be crazy for 10 minutes. So be happy and positive.
She signed a tennis ball and took a picture for every girl in the room.
Fernandez is one of four top 15 players born since 2000, and each has made waves at Grand Slams. There is Gauff (n°11), 18, recent finalist at Roland Garros. There’s 19-year-old Emma Raducanu (#10), who beat Fernandez last summer in the US Open final. The world No. 1, Iga Swiatek, is only 21 years old, with two Roland-Garros titles already.
“We’re driven by each other’s success,” Fernandez told reporters. “I would see Coco do amazing things, see Iga do amazing things. Like that definitely motivated me, like ‘ok, I want to do exactly like that.’ I want to be part of this group of young girls and I hope to inspire other young girls to do the same.
The last time Toronto hosted this women’s tournament – in 2019 – Fernandez was 16 and playing primarily on the ITF Tour. She had recently won the French Open junior title and earned a wild card for Toronto, but suffered an early first-round loss, 6-0, 6-1, to Czech qualifier Marie Bouzkova.
“At the time, I was just impressed to see all these professionals,” Fernandez said, recalling how giddy she was as she walked past Venus Williams.
Fernandez also lost quickly in doubles at this tournament, but partnered with former world No. 1 Simona Halep.
“I knew she had a great [amount] talented,” Halep said in Toronto over the weekend when asked about that interaction with Fernandez. “She was also impressive last year in the Grand Slam final. She’s so young, but super mature for her age. And a southpaw, so even more special.
Fernandez recalls being very nervous on the pitch with Halep and not knowing how to talk to her. Three years later, the Canadian has moved past her nervousness around tennis celebrities and feels like she belongs on the court with the best women in the world.
“Right now I think I’m enjoying my time a lot more instead of being so dazzled,” she said.
Fernandez said she has high expectations for the rest of this season, including the US Open next month. She can’t wait to see how the rehabilitated foot holds up.
“I train. I feel good. I feel happy. But a tennis match is a whole new world. We’re going to go game by game, point by point, and hopefully everything will go well and then we can just improve, tournament by tournament.