After an injury at Roland Garros in May, Leylah Fernandez spent an uncomfortable amount of time away from her racquets. The 19-year-old rising Canadian tennis star couldn’t train, so she told herself “hide them in the closet, try not to look at them.”
Suffering a stress fracture in her right foot during the French Open scuttled many of her summer plans. She didn’t get to play Wimbledon, Washington’s Citi Open or an exhibition against American teen standout Coco Gauff. But Fernandez is set to return this week at the WTA’s lone Canadian tour stop, Toronto’s National Bank Open.
“Since Roland Garros, it has been a roller coaster,” said Fernandez, the 13th seed, who will play her first match Monday night against Australian qualifier Storm Sanders.
She was “heartbroken and sad” not to compete for two-plus months, stopped in the midst of another thrilling Grand Slam run. During the quarter-final in Paris, father and coach Jorge Fernandez – from the crowd – urged her to retire from the match, because she’d been struggling with the foot pain for days. But she soldiered through and lost to unseeded Italian Martina Trevisan in a three-setter. She learned later her foot was fractured.
Patience during recuperation was tough for the Montrealer, now based in Florida. She was on crutches for a while, then in a walking boot. But Fernandez saw positives, too: extra time with her family, watching TV and devouring books, especially crime thrillers.
She has been busy since her dogged run to the U.S. Open final in New York last September. She defended her title in Monterey, Mexico, in March. And the Canadian – of Ecuadorean and Filipino descent, who speaks English, French and Spanish – has built out her business portfolio, now touting a mix of deals including Lululemon, Morgan Stanley, Subway, Gatorade and Google.
The world No. 14 is Canada’s top-ranked female singles player. A group of local kids attending the National Bank Open qualifiers in Toronto over the weekend got an exclusive meeting with Fernandez, as WTA Tour cameras rolled on their encounter. A couple of dozen girls were invited into the media centre, where reporters usually interview players during the tournament. Every kid was decked in full tennis gear from their visors to their sneakers. They had their own news conference.
The eager girls thrust their arms in the air, as though they were in school, to ask questions. They had scribbled their queries on paper and then read them aloud. Fernandez sat at the podium, considered each one carefully and addressed every girl by name.
Fernandez relayed stories from her childhood, of hitting tennis balls against the wall and building forts with her sister in the basement, of dodge ball at recess, of playing many sports as a kid and wanting to be a soccer pro like her dad.
“I fell in love with it from the first ball I hit,” she told them about trying tennis.
“My dad always believed in me,” she said when one asked about the most important person in her career.
And her advice for dealing with bad feelings after a loss?
“Be mad for 10 minutes. Then be happy and positive.”
She signed a tennis ball and snapped a photo for every girl in the room.
Fernandez is one of four players in the top 15 born since 2000, and each has made waves in slams. There’s 18-year-old Gauff (No. 11), a recent finalist at Roland Garros. There’s 19-year-old Emma Raducanu (No. 10), who bested Fernandez last summer in the U.S. Open final. The world No. 1, Iga Swiatek, is just 21, with two French Open titles already.
“We are motivated by each other’s success,” Fernandez told reporters. “I would see Coco doing amazing things, see Iga do amazing things. Like that definitely motivated me, like ‘okay, I want to do exactly like that.’ I want to be part of that group of young girls and hopefully motivate other young girls to do the same.”
The previous time Toronto held this women’s tournament – in 2019 – Fernandez was 16 and mostly playing on the ITF circuit. She had recently won the junior French Open title and got a wild card for Toronto, but suffered a swift first-round loss, 6-0, 6-1, to Czech qualifier Marie Bouzkova.
“Back then I was just in awe seeing all these professionals,” said Fernandez, recalling how giddy she’d been there when passing by Venus Williams.
Fernandez lost out quickly in doubles at that tournament, too, but got to partner with former world No. 1 Simona Halep.
“I knew that she had a super [amount] of talent,” Halep said in Toronto this 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 lefty, so even more special.”
Fernandez recalled being very nervous on-court with Halep, and unsure how to talk to her. Three years later, the Canadian is past her jitters around tennis celebrities, and feels as though she belongs on court with the best women in the world.
“Right now I think I’m just enjoying my time a lot more instead of being so star-struck,” she said.
Fernandez said she has big expectations for the rest of this season, including the U.S. Open next month. She’s eager to see how the rehabilitated foot holds up.
“I’m practising. I’m feeling great. I’m feeling happy. But a tennis match is a whole new world. We’re going to take it match by match, point by point, and hopefully everything goes well and then we can just get better, tournament by tournament.”