The father-daughter relationship behind the success of rising Canadian tennis star Leylah Annie Fernandez

·17 min read
The father-daughter relationship behind the success of rising Canadian tennis star Leylah Annie Fernandez

Sitting on the living room couch at their Boynton Beach home in Florida, Leylah Annie Fernandez and her father, Jorge, are intently watching All or Nothing: Manchester City.

The pair are huge fans of City manager Pep Guardiola, considered one of the greatest soccer managers the game has known. As the intensely cerebral Spaniard breaks down the patterns he wants his players to exhibit on the pitch, Leylah and Jorge sink their teeth in.

"I love Real Madrid but right now we're kind of taking a break from them and supporting Man City," Leylah said. "I like Pep Guardiola, his style is kind of like my tennis game so I'm learning from him."

Learning to use patience to dictate play. Maximizing angles to go for the kill. That soccer techniques have intertwined with tennis strategies is only fitting.

Leylah's coach through her formative years has been Jorge, a former pro soccer player of Ecuadorian descent who played across South America. He never had any association with tennis whatsoever, but took on the challenge when he saw a daughter in need.

The two have already seen some of the ups and downs of pursuing a tennis career. From tennis pro being the answer to what she wanted be at the age of nine to thinking there may be more to life than sports within a year, Jorge has stood alongside her through every decision.

It is a most intriguing relationship the two share as Leylah looks to continue her ascension on the WTA circuit after having struggled for lift-off with her tennis aspirations as a child. Jorge's gut instincts to coach his daughter have helped Leylah maximize everything within her 5-foot-4, 106-pound frame to put her on the cusp of making her name an unforgettable one in the tennis world.

The past 12 months has gone a long way toward that goal. She delivered a straight-sets win over Belinda Bencic, ranked No. 12 in the world, in February last year in a must-win match for Canada at the Billie Jean King Cup (formerly the Federation Cup). She followed that up by reaching the first WTA Tour final of her career in Acapulco shortly after.

The Montreal-born 18-year-old is now ranked No. 89 heading into the Australian Open, which begins Sunday in Melbourne. She will open the tournament Monday against Elise Mertens of Belgium, the tournament's No. 18 seed. It is the fourth major of her young career.

When Leylah first began playing sports at the age of five, she looked a natural at soccer, and though track and field joined the fray along with volleyball – tennis had her heart. She first started playing in their Laval home driveway where the goal was simply to avoid hitting the family car. She worked on her consistency by hitting a ball against the basement wall for hours on end, a practice that had her mother, Irene, stressing over whether the TV or wall would end up with a hole. As Leylah got older, she and her younger sister, Bianca, would ride their bikes to the tennis courts three blocks away.

"It's the beauty of it," Leylah said about why tennis appealed to her more than the other sports. "Every time I would watch tennis on TV, it was so beautiful: the way you can create something out of nothing is what attracted me to it. And then the competition: you're on your own on the court, you make the decisions and if it goes well you get the win and if it doesn't you lose. You don't really need to depend on anybody else, you don't need to depend on your teammate for the winning shot."

WATCH | Fernandez wins Junior French Open:

As Leylah's passion for the sport increased, she found a hero in 5-foot-5-and-a-half Swiss legend Justine Henin on YouTube, inspired by what someone with a relatable frame could do. Henin spent 117 weeks as world No. 1 and won seven Grand Slam titles, including the French Open four times. She also won an Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.

"She's not the biggest player nor the strongest player but she always found a solution playing against bigger players," Leylah said. "She had the talent, great hands, slices and drop shots to open up the court where not many could, and that inspired me that I could do it, too, and I want to inspire other kids to believe they can do it, too."

The modern era has typically favoured taller players in the women's game. Billie Jean King, at 5-foot-5, won 12 major singles titles and Chris Evert managed 18 at 5-foot-6, but both retired more than a decade before Leylah was born. The likes of Henin have been more the exception than the rule since. Of the 20 highest-ranked players on the women's tour coming into this season, 16 are listed at 5-foot-9 or taller.

More encouragingly, the other four are world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty (5-foot-5), No. 2 Simona Halep (5-foot-6), and No. 4 Sofia Kenin and No. 8 Bianca Andreescu (both listed at 5-foot-7). They have accounted for half of the previous 10 Grand Slams won — compatriot Andreescu becoming the first Canadian to win a major singles title when she won the U.S. Open in 2019 — and Leylah hopes to join that list sooner than most prognosticators anticipate.

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'Big mountain to climb'

"Finish top 10 in the WTA," she said when asked about her goals for 2021. "I know that's a very big mountain to climb but I always think that it's possible and me, as a player, I can do it."

Leylah's parents' first step to helping her pursue a tennis career began at the age of seven when they enrolled her in a provincial development program in Montreal that was in partnership with the national program. The hope was to help her elevate her game, but they soon saw the challenges of chasing professional aspirations. Leylah, a left-hander, was found to have a flawed forehand technique, was slow on her fitness tests, and struggled with her serve. Losses piled up and before she could realize what hit her, she was cut from the program.

"I thought I was gonna get my weekends back," Jorge said with a laugh. "She was crying and I'm looking at this little girl, 'Honey, is this really important for you?' She said yeah and that she really wanted to play. I said, 'If you want, I'll coach you.'"

Honey, is this really important for you?' She said yeah and that she really wanted to play. I said, 'If you want, I'll coach you. - Jorge Fernandez

In the moment, Jorge viewed her fundamental deficiencies as secondary. He may not have known how to be a tennis player, but he certainly knew how to be a professional athlete. He had watched Leylah get coached from the sidelines and could see there were teaching methods she could benefit from. Tennis, after all, has been as traditionalist a sport as any. Perhaps a fresh pair of eyes could be exactly what she needed.

Jorge quickly decided to work on a plan of action, recognizing that if he was going to get the best out of his daughter, he was going to have to stick to his guns. After all, he could relate to the task at hand for Leylah, having signed his first professional soccer contract at the age of 13.

Whether it be coaching or any goal, Jorge's first step is to write down his objectives and assign timelines. At the top of the list was to make Leylah mentally unbreakable. He knew it was going to require a plan that took not days or weeks or months, but years. By the time she was done her teens, Jorge wanted to ensure he had helped mould someone who could consistently showcase character and spirit.

He also put in time to study parents who have coached their kids to an elite level in tennis. In the women's game, there's hardly a better example than Richard Williams, who nurtured his daughters Venus and Serena to a combined 30 Grand Slam singles titles. Serena, with 23 to her name, is arguably the greatest tennis player the women's circuit has ever seen. Steffi Graf, perhaps her biggest competition in the GOAT debate, finished with 22 Grand Slam singles titles and was also coached by her father, Peter Graf, in the early stages of her career.

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Jorge would spend time watching Venus and Serena's matches and try to understand game plans not only from each of the two sisters, but their opponents and how they would be countered.

"One of the things [with Richard] was the simplification of the sport," Jorge said. "I think great salespeople have a way to simplify complexity and just focus on the assets that are going to get you where they're going to get you. He focused on their power.

"In the land of the blind the one-eyed-man is king. I had one eye, and I said, OK, since my kids and my wife don't know better, I'm not going to get criticized too much. I decided we're going to focus a lot on finesse, mental toughness, and speed. A lot of precision tennis, and every now and again, a knockout punch."

Leylah's first taste of Jorge the coach was a rude awakening. She was nine and trying to execute a basic drill of hitting the ball over the net. Unknown to her was a three-strike rule Jorge was going to enforce for repeating the same mistake. As the ball nestled into the net for a third time, she was told to run "suicides," a high-intensity sprint drill. Leylah was taken aback, but Jorge wasn't going to have it any other way. He wanted her at what he viewed as maximum output.

You have to be at the red line all the time, and then you find a new red line. - Jorge Fernandez

"You have to be at the red line all the time, and then you find a new red line," Jorge said, conjuring the markings on a pressure gauge. "You have to be there until the red zone becomes a normal zone, then, the most beautiful thing happens. You become a better player and the mistakes you're making, you're no longer making them.

"You have a mental fortitude and what you didn't think you could do, you now do regularly."

Jorge recognizes that it's difficult for kids to grasp the concept of pressure and stress. He felt it was important to convey that in the simple terms kids understand: good gets rewarded and bad gets punished. Leylah would often end up in tears and other coaches would shake their head at Jorge's methods, but he wouldn't let up. It was the way he knew best. Having recognized his daughter's shock, though, he did have a conversation with her immediately after to see how she felt.

"He just wants me to improve, keep correcting, keep competing," Leylah says now. "He said that's going to happen a lot, that he's going to put me in uncomfortable positions during practice and it's up to me to fight through it and find solutions.

"When I said I wanted to be professional, that's the place I wanted to go. That's why he pushes me a little bit more every day, every year."

While creating a "normal zone" in their coaching relationship, Jorge also wanted to make sure Leylah was never intimidated by the size of her opponent. While Jorge still had the time in Montreal, he played pickup basketball with some friends and decided that he was going to ask one of his muscular 6-foot-4 friends who happened to also play tennis to go up against his nine-year-old daughter.

The instructions for Leylah were to focus on the ball no matter what and just keep the rally going. Jorge watched from her side of the net as the rallies progressed and she was able to keep up. To take the challenge to another level, he walked over to the other side and asked his friend to crank up the power from time to time. Leylah would struggle, but she kept going.

Focus on the yellow fuzz coming at you

Jorge's message was simple: in tennis, no one can physically hurt you. It's not soccer where someone can get their cleats stuck into you, or basketball or hockey where someone might take a cheap shot. He felt the key in tennis is to ensure the ball going by you or into the net doesn't phase you. Leylah left the court that day knowing all she needed to focus on was the yellow fuzz coming at her, not who was hitting it back.

The results speak for themselves. Leylah won her first national tournament, for players 16 and under, at the age of 12. She was soon invited to Tennis Canada's U14 and provincial program and though she wound up leaving it after just a couple of months, her acceptance into the program gave the family confidence to pursue international tournaments and move to Florida, a renowned hub for tennis talent. Playing in the ITF Juniors, her biggest moment came in 2019 when she was 16, reaching the finals of the Junior Australian Open in January and then winning the Junior French Open a few months later.

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"With the help of my dad, him learning with me and my younger sister, too, and also my mom, they were all there and just encouraged me and told me that if I want to stop playing tennis, I can," Leylah said looking back on her early struggles.

"Tennis is not the only thing in life that's going to make you happy but, for me, I just kept improving, kept my head down and kept working. With time, a few years later, the results came and more opportunities came my way too."

For Leylah to fully realize her potential, help with the fundamentals and technical aspect of her game were going to be necessary. In that regard, there was little Jorge could offer. He needed help. He positioned himself more as a head coach, like he knew in soccer, and the right assistants were to be pivotal to Leylah's growth.

Jorge recruited Francisco Sanchez, a former hitting partner of pros Henin and Kim Clijsters, and coach Robby Menard when the family was still in Montreal. Now it is Frenchman Romain Deridder, who previously worked as the director of ITF team and player development at Proworld Tennis Academy in Delray Beach, Fla.

'Complement each other'

"Jorge and I have a really good relationship on and off the court," said Deridder, who is with Leylah in Australia this month. "I think we complement each other very well. Obviously, he has been on court with her his whole life so when we started I wanted to learn from him as much as possible and I still do, so I can fit into the team and understand what I can bring and how to approach Leylah.

"We sometimes get into situations that they both lived before and it helps a lot that he knows his daughter better than anyone. Two sets of eyes are better than one."

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Associated Press

Away from the court, there are movie nights, scarfing down burgers, Leylah making fun of her dad being the most immature person in the room and then both laughing. After dinner, Leylah and Jorge — and more recently sister Bianca — can be found shooting paper towels into a glass to see who can get it in first.

"He actually lets me eat what I want, which is pretty cool that he's not too strict outside the court," Leylah said. "The only thing he's strict about is my schooling, like every parent is, other than that he just says balance your life, you have time to relax and hang out but when it's time to work, you work. That's all he wants for me, and to be independent."

As Leylah has grown and matured, Jorge has stressed the importance of her making her own decisions and being able to live with them.

He's not one to control me. I have my opinions, my decisions, he wants me to be independent ... - Leylah Annie Fernandez

"He's not one to control me," Leylah said. "I have my opinions, my decisions, he wants me to be independent so he teaches me all this stuff but leaves the decisions to me to open up, be a strong, independent woman and live with my decisions, whether it's a bad one or a good one and dealing with the consequences. At the same time I know he's always going to be there and be able to support me so that's great."

Whenever it's time to take a break from dad, Irene and Bianca are there for her. Leylah sees her mother's calming presence and encouraging manner as the perfect complement to her father's more fiery style. With Bianca, who is pursuing a tennis career of her own and who is also being coached by Jorge, the two can share their experiences together. It was only recently the two stopped sharing a room, but when home, Leylah can be found hanging out with her little sister in her room, extending the closeness that developed.

"She's the one teaching me sometimes," Leylah said about her sister. "She has so much energy, we're always so competitive, every time we're on the court we're trying to beat each other or even off the court we want to see who's better at cleaning or cooking even."

Leylah opened the 2021 season this past week by losing in the second round of the Grampians Trophy, a tuneup to the Australian Open. She pulled off an impressive 6-3, 6-1 win over 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the first round, but then lost to world No. 22 Maria Sakkari in straight sets in gusty Melbourne conditions.

Every win over the next four months matters even more since a silver lining of the pandemic is that a door has been opened for Leylah to participate in the Tokyo Olympics — an opportunity her ranking wouldn't have afforded her last year. She entered 2020 ranked 209th. With the one-year delay, qualification for the tennis singles competition has been extended to June 7, 2021, and the top 56 players in the world at that time will be considered eligible.

Olympic dream

"It would mean a lot to me," Leylah said of Olympic participation. "That was one of my dreams when I was younger, just to represent my family and my country in the Olympics, hopefully get a gold, silver or bronze medal. Obviously, I want the gold medal, but just having that experience would be a checkmark off the book."

While Leylah has high expectations of herself, Deridder keeps perspective on the Canadian teenager and emphasizes just how much further Leylah can go.

"She is still in development and transitioning from the juniors," Deridder said. "Her game has so much room for development and improvement in every aspect: mentally, physically and technically. That's the everyday work and that's what we are here for."

Jorge has been spending time more recently working with. It is all part of the process of recognizing that Leylah's best will steadily come as he slowly lets go and gives more of her to the world. Just as he was the one to bring a fresh approach to her game when she needed it as a child, he is happy for others to keep adding to her repertoire. Leylah may tease him over abandoning her and moving on, but deep down she recognizes why it's necessary.

"He sees weakness as an opportunity to improve and become your greatest weapon," Leylah said. "He will always admit his faults, he will always say, 'I'm not good at this but I can bring someone to mentor you and teach you at the same time so when the time comes and we need to go to a different path...'

"He will still know what to tell me, what to teach me, and we'll keep working together."