Leylah Fernandez in 2021: a first title, a US Open final, an explosive year

A first title on the WTA Tour, and above all a final at the US Open at the age of 19, Leylah Fernandez has exploded at the highest level this year.

Leylah Fernandez, Tennis Majors, 2021 © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Leylah Fernandez is growing up fast – from best junior in the world and Roland-Garros girls’ champion in 2019 to Grand Slam runner-up two years later, all while still a teenager.

In 2020, she made her first Tour final in Acapulco after coming out of qualifying (losing in three sets to Heather Watson). This year, she stepped up a gear, lifting the first trophy of her career in Monterrey, then dismantling one seed after another in New York. She finished the year ranked 24th in the world and is aiming for the top 10 next year.

  • Fernandez’s ranking at the end of 2020: 88
  • Fernandez’s ranking at the end of 2021: 24
  • Win-loss: 25 – 17
  • Fernandez’s titles: 1

Fernandez’s best performance: First title, first Grand Slam final

Leylah Fernandez opened her record this year by winning her first tournament in Monterrey, defeating all her opponents in two sets, including Viktorija Golubic in the final (6-1, 6-4). The highest ranked player she beat was Sara Sorribes Tormo, ranked 57th in the world.

In her second year as a pro and her sixth Grand Slam appearance, she made it all the way through the US Open draw, losing only to another teenager, Emma Raducanu, in the final.

Fernandez’s best Grand Slam result: Runner-up in New York

Fernandez had disappointments in the first three Grand Slam tournaments of the year. She lost in the first round of the Australian Open (6-1, 6-3 to Elise Mertens) and Wimbledon (6-1, 6-2 to Jelena Ostapenko). In fact, when she arrived in New York, the Canadian teenager had just one Grand Slam win this season, which came at the French Open against Anastasia Potapova (6-2, 6-1). Her second set against Madison Keys in the Roland-Garros second round, where she broke twice and saved five match points, was much more encouraging. Although she eventually lost (6-1, 7-5), she gave an insight into her remarkable tenacity.

Fernandez’s best moment of the season: On cloud nine in New York

The best moment of her season was undoubtedly her run at the US Open – two dream weeks, during which the Canadian was irrevocably in the zone. On her way to the final, she beat three top five players and two Grand Slam winners: defending champion Naomi Osaka, three-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber, world No 5 Elina Svitolina, and then world No 2 Aryna Sabalenka in the semi-finals. These were four epic battles won in three sets, and the public were captivated by the small, determined Canadian.

That’s not to say Fernandez made any of this look easy. In her third-round encounter with Osaka, the Japanese player made a series of unbelievable mistakes on the forehand side while leading 7-5, 6-5, and serving for the match. Fernandez took advantage of this to win the tiebreak and ultimately earn her first career win over a top-10 player (5-7, 7-6[2], 6-4).

Down a set and a break again in the next round against Kerber, she hit 20 winners in the second set alone, snatched the tiebreak and fly into the quarter-finals by winning five straight games. Against Svitolina and Sabalenka, she got off to the better start and took the first set – but then had to withstand their comeback and the pressure of two thrilling deciders to make the difference at the very end of the third set on her first match point.

Leylah Fernandez (© Panoramic)

Fernandez’s worst moment of the season: A first-round defeat in front of a home crowd in Montreal

After her first title in March, she did not get past the second round of a tournament until the US Open. That’s seven wins out of 11 tournaments played. She fell in the first round of qualifying in Miami, Madrid and Rome. Three weeks before her American dream, she lost in front of her home crowd in the first round of Montreal to world No 172 Harriet Dart (7-5, 7-6).

That’s how unexpected her epic was. Before setting foot in New York, her best achievement was a third round in a Grand Slam – and that was on a different surface, at the 2020 French Open.

Fernandez off court

Leylah Fernandez is coached by her father, Jorge, a former Ecuadorian professional football player, who encouraged her to be independent and travel to the US Open alone.

And she did him proud, speaking during the presentation ceremony after the final to thank the New York crowd for their support: “I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been for the past 20 years.”

Her younger sister Bianca, 17, also plays tennis (ranked 929th in the world). They have been training together in preparation for the upcoming season, as Leylah revealed on her Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Leylah Fernandez in 2021 by Leylah Fernandez : “Couldn’t have imagined”

“What a year,” she wrote in capital letters in a post on Instagram. “At the beginning of the season, I couldn’t have imagined the adventure I was about to have. I worked hard and trusted my game. I’m really grateful for this season and everything I’ve learned along the way. Can’t wait to get back to work and see you all on the court in Australia.”

Her goals are now very high. “For 2022, my dad and I are talking about reaching the top 10,” she told Ecuadorian television during a trip to her father’s country to support her sister at a tournament. “I hope I can reach more Grand Slam finals, win a Masters 1000 and have other good results.”

Tennis Majors’ assessment

As she continues to make her way on the professional circuit, Leylah Fernandez has not bothered with the stepping stones. Her first career title was already a first major milestone. Her US Open final was a resounding achievement. But if you look at her record, you will not be able to say that it was just a fluke.

Despite her defeat in the final, Fernandez showed her strength of character – a breathtaking performance that will surely reassure her in any moments of doubt. Despite her small stature, she proved that her excellent timing, her speed of movement, her touch and her left-handed forehand can wreak as much havoc in the pros as in the juniors.

The hardest part, however, is yet to come. While she had nothing to lose in New York against the heavily favoured players, she will now be expected to win. With this change in status, she may not have the same lack of pressure and subsequent success. That kind of learning curve will not scare her, though – and it will be exciting to see her professionalism and her champion mentality develop even further in 2022.

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