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Leylah Fernandez ready to “push her limits”: Exclusive interview with the 18-year old rising star from Canada
Leylah Annie Fernandez, the present and the future of women’s tennis, talks about her mentality and drive, family influence, aggressive playing style, communication as the key between a player and a coach, as well as Justine Henin as her role model, the love for clay and many other topics
Leylah Annie Fernandez is only 18 years old but has already made quite a few big splashes on the WTA Tour. Notable results include a runner-up finish in Acapulco and third round of Roland-Garros in 2020, as well as claiming her first career title in Monterrey earlier this year. She was also the recipient of the 2021 Billie Jean King Cup Play-Offs Heart Award for her outstanding performances and wins over Nina Stojanovic and Olga Danilović in April.
Fernandez will face Anastasia Potapova in the French Open first round on Sunday.
In a broad-ranging interview, the left-hander from Canada talked with Tennis Majors about the values and mentality her parents instilled into her, what she looks for in a coach, and why Justine Henin is “an artist” in her eyes. Also, Fernandez commented on what she needs to improve to get to the next level, her relationship with clay, dealing with pressure, and the one Big 3 match that she remembers the most.
Family legacy: work hard and fight for what you want
Tennis Majors: There is always a lot of talk about how difficult the transition from juniors to the professional circuit is, but yours seems to be going quite smoothly. What are your traits as a person and as a player that have made that transition easier?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: I am very hardworking. There is no secret to playing tennis, you need to work hard every day. I am glad that my parents have taught me the value of working hard from a very young age; that it does not matter what I did yesterday, because today is a new day and a new opportunity to do better. Also, my parents and grandparents taught me how to fight for what I want – I want to be a tennis professional, every day I have that in my mind and I want to prove that to everyone.
Tennis Majors: That is a great mentality to have, but how did your parents and grandparents instill it in you?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: It was all about them explaining their story and the way they grew up. Also, during my tennis practice, my dad was not too soft on me; no, he was very hardworking and always pushing me to my limits in order to see what I could achieve. He knew how to train me. Also, my mum has been helping me with school and finding solutions knowing that it was going to be very hard for me during that transition. She sacrificed so much in the past few years for my tennis, and that definitely helped in building my character. All of those little things that have happened in my life – I just see those characteristics in them – hard work and fight.
I do consider myself coachableLeylah Annie Fernandez
Tennis Majors: As you mentioned, your dad Jorge is your coach, which is not uncommon in tennis. I know you probably get this a lot, but how do you balance the father-daughter and coach-player relationship?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: To be honest, it is definitely very hard. I see him as my dad; he is so fun to be around, like a big teddy bear. But on the tennis court, he knows how to flip a switch, to become a tennis coach and to have no pity for his players. So, my dad does the majority of the work in separating those two. He is very much into sports, because he was a soccer player in the past. He knows what needs to be done and how, so I am very happy to have him as my coach.
Tennis Majors: Your dad is your primary coach, but you also have another coach Romain Deridder. How does that cooperation work?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: This team has been working for over a year and I feel we have been working very well together. A few years ago, my dad said that it was time to bring someone who knows a little bit more about tennis – not only does he want me to improve, but he has to also focus on my younger sister (Bianca Jolie), who plays tennis as well. Romain has been an incredible coach for us. He is very communicative, he knows how to critique me and how to help me to find different solutions. I am glad to have him on my team.
Tennis Majors: What is it that you look for in a coach and do you consider yourself coachable?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: A lot of communication, because I think that is the key for everyone. It is very important for me to have someone by my side who talks about what I need to improve, what I am doing well etc. So, yes, I do consider myself coachable.
Tennis Majors: You lost your first matches in Madrid and Rome this year, but generally speaking, you are doing really well on clay – you made it to the third round of Roland-Garros last year and you won the juniors event in 2019. Not a lot of Canadian players usually excel on clay, so what is your secret?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: There is no secret, it is just that I have worked so hard since the beginning and I have always been fond of red clay, ever since I first saw it on TV. I am glad that I am having fun playing on it. From a young age, I was training on hardcourts, and then I would have the opportunity to play on the clay a few times; it always brought me different feelings, I enjoyed it, it is fun to play on it.
Tennis Majors: We often hear players saying they are having fun on the court, but there is a lot of pressure involved during matches, particularly in key moments. How do you deal with that pressure, do you work with someone to help you with that specifically?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: Yes, I do have someone that I am working with at the moment, but I also have the support of my family and my team. They have known me from the very beginning, so they know how to talk to me and how to help me to get through those moments. I do not have any specific techniques, it is all about focusing on my game, the game plan and doing my best to execute it.
I looked up to Justine Henin, she is an amazing player. Her game is very similar to Federer’s, but on the women’s sideLeylah Annie Fernandez
Tennis Majors: I have read some of your interviews in which you have said that you watched a lot of tennis on TV when you were younger. Who did you look up to in that time?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: I looked up to Justine Henin, she is an amazing player. Her game is very similar to Federer’s, but on the women’s side. Also, I watched a lot of Big 3 matches – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Tennis Majors: You are the same height as Henin. What is it about her game that drew you to her?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: When I saw her play, mostly on YouTube, it looked like art to me. The way she was opening up the court, it was just a thing of beauty how she is able to create something out of nothing. I was instantly very attracted to her game and I am always trying to produce as much of that as I can in my game.
Tennis Majors: You mentioned the Big 3 as well. Which matches do you remember vividly?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: I do remember watching Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic playing like the longest match ever at the Australian Open. I set my alarm early that morning in order to watch that final, and I just did not fall asleep, that was a really memorable match. I also remember the Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Djokovic, as well as Nadal’s matches at Roland-Garros.
Tennis Majors: You are young and you are probably going to say that you need to improve everything so that you could become a better player. Still, if there is one shot or one aspect of your game that you feel you need to get better at in order to get to a higher level, what would that be?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: That is a very good question because right now I have a list of things I need to work on to get to the next level. I would say maybe my forehand, to make it a little more precise and faster. Hopefully I can do it, but like I said, there is a whole list of things. Also, there are aspects of the game that I am good at, but I need to become even better.
Tennis Majors: To a casual tennis fan, how would you describe your playing style?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: I am an offensive player who likes to take the ball early and to open up the court. I am trying to make my opponents run as much as I can.
The two sides of traveling around the world
Tennis Majors: Finally, what is it about the life of a professional tennis player that you love, and what are parts of that life that you do not enjoy?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: This life is definitely exciting. I like traveling to new places and exploring them, that is why last year was hard with the pandemic and not being able to leave the hotel. Otherwise, I am grateful for having the opportunity to travel and to learn about different countries and cities.
The one thing I do not like too much about traveling is that I miss my family a lot. I am very close to them, especially with my sisters. When I do not see them for a few weeks, I get a bit homesick. Thank God that there are phones and computers so I can talk to them and see them; if it were not for that, I do not know what I would do.
Tennis Majors: Just a quick follow up on what you just said. What is one place that you liked the most traveling around the world?
Leylah Annie Fernandez: I honestly really liked Israel. I went there as a junior and it was always nice and very educational for me.