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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Leylah Annie Fernandez stands just 5-foot-4, so she sometimes flies under the radar. 

"From the very beginning I was underestimated a lot ­– from school to tennis to even soccer," she said. "Nobody thought I could be a striker on a soccer team. Nobody thought I could be the smartest kid in class either, but I just love proving people wrong."

​The 17-year-ol​d from Laval, Que., is quickly rising up the ranks in the tennis world. So far this season Fernandez has qualified for her maiden major, made her first WTA final, beat a top-five player and b​eat a Grand Slam champion.

Fernandez started the year ranked No. 209 and in just a few months has rocketed up to No. 118. Among those ranked ahead of her, only 16-year-old American "Coco" Gauff is younger. 

"Everybody wants a stereotypical wide receiver," said Jorge Fernandez, Leylah Annie's father and coach. "Everybody wants a stereotypical quarterback, everybody wants that. I look at Tom Brady, who has been in the news, and the career that he's had and how he got picked (in the sixth round of the draft). You look at all of that and I always put in their heads, 'Being unique, being different, is an advantage and people not understanding who you are, you being an enigma, that's a problem for people because they can't figure you out,' and a lot of the experts are too shortsighted."

TSN caught up with father and daughter for a lengthy FaceTime interview from their Florida training base this week. The pair provided insight on how the crafty southpaw has been able to make such a smooth transition to the professional world.  

The seeds of success were planted in the off-season. 

 

The off-season

Ranking: 209 

After claiming the French Open junior title last June, Fernandez played mostly on the ITF circuit, winning an event in Gatineau, reaching the final in Granby, the semifinals in Vancouver and the final in Waco, Texas among other results.

The team grew in the off-season,­­­ with Romain Deridder added as co-coach and Mark Wellington helping with fitness. 

"We got together and said, 'We're going to put this little lefty through hell on earth,'" Jorge recalled, "and we're going to make sure she's ready to go for the Australian Open with the best mindset and the best of everything she could possibly have as a 17-year-old."

Part of the focus was on being more offensive-minded on the court, which is something Leylah Annie learned she needed from her ITF experience. 

"I saw the level from last year and how different it was," she said. "I think we did a good job in that aspect and, also, physically I've been getting stronger and faster, so that's been helping a lot."

 ​

Australian Open

January 14-21 in Melbourne  

Ranking: 207

First round of qualifying - def. (108) Patricia Maria Tig 6-2, 6-3

Second round of qualifying - def. (172) Mayo Hibi 6-4, 6-4

Third round of qualifying - def. (200) Danielle Lao 7-5, 7-5

First round - lost to (62) Lauren Davis 4-6, 2-6

After falling in the first round of qualifying at her season-opening event in New Zealand, Fernandez fashioned her first breakthrough of the year in Melbourne. Without dropping a set, the teenager qualified for her first major. 

"What stands out the most was the feeling of finally being able to play in a professional tournament at a Grand Slam," said Leylah Annie. "For the first time I was able to tell my dad, 'I'm here as a professional, not as a junior or as a fan.' So it was a great feeling. The three rounds, they were tough battles and to be able to qualify, it was incredible. It was a moment I don't think I'll forget. And now it's time to focus on the next goal on the list and that's to win rounds in the main draw of a Grand Slam."

Jorge, who also coaches younger daughter Bianca Jolie, wasn't in Australia.

"I was very proud of what she accomplished, because you can be prepared on training ground, but then you go and you get the shakes, you get the nerves, you get the expectation and that sets you off," said Jorge, a former soccer player. "And, as we know, tennis matches get determined by like three or four key points and I think she handled all of that extremely well. From a coaching perspective, I was very happy. I give her a three out of four. I was expecting her to win one more round in the main draw and that would've been the cherry on top."

Jorge is always wearing​ two hats: coach and dad.

"From a dad perspective, look, I can't stop saying how she keeps surprising me," he said. "The hotter it gets in the kitchen the more she doesn't want to leave. So, she's proven to me that she's on the right path ­– not only as a tennis professional, but really as an ambassador of the sport ... You have to have this 360 type of outlook and be able to handle all of it together. So, from a father's perspective, I'm looking at a 17-year-old who's not doing normal things that another 17-year-old is doing. There are great juniors around the world, but very few are able to make that little transition because of all the little things that come together.  So, as a father, I'm still in awe. It's a great start. I never imagined in my wildest dream that I would get that phone call  that, 'I qualified at a Grand Slam.' Okay, a 250 [level event] I get it, you know, but a grand slam? Yeah, it was definitely one of those moments that I, myself, will never forget about and hope to tell my grandkids, her kids, what that was like in the future."

Leylah Annie pipes in.  

"In a long, long time," she says with a laugh. "Not any time soon.”

"Twenty years," Jorge says with a grin.

 

Fed Cup qualifier

Feb. 7-8 in Biel, Switzerland 

Ranking: 185

First match - lost to (68) Jil Teichmann 6-7, 4-6

Second match - def. (5) Belinda Bencic 6-2, 7-6

With Bianca Andreescu and Genie Bouchard sidelined by injury, Fernandez stepped up for her country during a Fed Cup tie in Switzerland, which led to another watershed moment.

With Canada clinging to life after losing the first two rubbers, Fernandez upset Belinda Bencic. 

"I've always believed I could beat anyone," Leylah Annie said, "but to be able to beat Belinda, a top-five player, at the Fed Cup, an away tie at that, it was one of those moments where I stopped and I just said, 'Wow, the hard work I did from the very beginning, it’s paying off.' I think that opened up my eyes. I said, 'I got to keep going, keep working harder, keep listening to my coaches and try to do better next time.'"

That's right, Fernandez still wasn't satisfied, because Canada dropped the tie 3-1. 

Mexican Open

Feb. 24-29 in Acapulco 

Ranking: 190

First round of qualifying - def. (122) Lizette Cabrera 6-3, 6-1

Second round of qualifying - def. (171) Varvara Lepchenko 6-3, 6-3

First round - def. (82) Nina Stojanovic 6-4, 6-1 

Second round - def. (71) Nao Hibino 6-3, 6-0

Quarter-final - def. (97) Anastasia Potapova 6-3, 7-5

Semifinal - def. (270) Renata Zarazua 6-3, 6-3 

Final - lost to (69) Heather Watson 4-6, 7-6, 1-6

Fernandez's best tournament almost never happened. She wasn't even in the qualifying draw at the Mexican Open until just days before it started.

"She was close to getting in on her ranking," Jorge explained, "but she wasn't quite there, so they were trying to convince us to fly out there and go and sign in [and wait to see if something opened up] and I just refused. I said, 'No, we're going to keep training. We're fine. We'll prepare for the next tournament.'"

Mexican wireless telecommunications company Telcel sponsors Fernandez and ​also the tournament in Acapulco, which led to some political handwringing behind the scenes. Eventually Fernandez got a wildcard into qualifying and arrived with just a couple days to spare. 

"It says a lot about our training and the preparations that we put in and it says a lot about Leylah's execution and mindset that we were able to turn on a dime and it was a great opportunity," Jorge said. "It was one of those tournaments that we had, in November, December, said, 'It would be really good if we could get in here,' and we circled it and said, 'This is an important tournament. We're not peaking yet, but this is where we want to do well.' And she went above expectations, even though we weren't happy losing in the finals."

A smiling Leylah Annie quickly adds, "We're never happy losing."

The match that stands out was the semifinal when Fernandez faced hometown hero Renata Zarazua​. Fernandez was the favourite on paper, but not in the stands, which can be a tricky proposition.

Jorge had been in El Salvador coaching Bianca Jolie, who lost in the quarter-finals at her event. Once Leylah Annie made it to the semifinals in Mexico, Jorge's parental instinct kicked in. He booked a flight and after only a couple hours of sleep headed to the airport. 

"I said, 'Listen, there's going to be three people cheering for you in this whole crowd,'" Jorge recalled. "I just wanted her to feel the support, that she wasn’t alone against all these other people."

This was a huge moment for the home nation as Zarazua was the first Mexican WTA semifinalist since Angelica Gavaldon in 1993.

"There was close to 8,000, 9,000 people in the stands and they weren't following exactly the etiquette of tennis," Jorge recalled. "The conversation with her in the beginning was, 'Absorb this, because this is a great thing that's happening, this is what we want. Whether they're cheering for you or against you, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, because you’re participating in something that is great for the sport and you just happen to be part of it.'"

"Just to have the audience cheering against me, sometimes cheering for me, it just got my heart beating," Leylah Annie said.

One hallmark of Fernandez's game is her mental toughness and that unflappable nature was on display against Zarazua​. But after dropping the final to Heather Watson, Fernandez finally blinked during the trophy presentation when she delivered a speech. 

"When I mentioned my mom and my sisters, who sacrificed a lot for me and my tennis career, that just brought out the sadness [about the loss] and then also all the loving emotions I felt for them, the gates were open and I started crying, the tears were flowing, but that just showed that I'm also a 17-year-old who's trying to figure out the professional tennis tour. Just try to be able to control the emotions throughout the whole tournament and then at the very last minute I broke a little bit. But I loved how my family supported me and that really touched my heart and that was the breaking part for me."

Jorge saw it a bit different. It was, he said, a sign of maturity. 

"It's a very lonely sport and in any sport you sacrifice a lot, but in a team sport you're together in a war and you go to battle after battle. But in this sport, you start off with so many people at the tournament in the change rooms, in the player lounge, and your reward is to be alone in the player lounge with just one other person at the end, so there's not a lonelier feeling than that," he said. "And then when you start absorbing all of that you start realizing how much you miss your family and I think it finally hit her. I think she's turning the page from becoming a teenager to understanding some of the things that everybody else is doing around her and it was a nice moment."

Abierto GNP Seguros

March 2-8 in Monterrey, Mexico 

Ranking: 126

1st round - def. (108) Stefanie Voegele 7-6, 6-2

2nd round - def. (37) Sloane Stephens 6-7, 6-3, 6-3 

Quarter-final - lost to (7) Elina Svitolina 4-6, 5-7 

By virtue of her great run in Acapulco, Fernandez received a special exemption into the next event in Monterrey and she didn't let up, posting another signature win by knocking off 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens. 

"It meant a lot," Leylah Annie said. "She won a Grand Slam and there's a reason for that. She's a great player. She's very talented and playing against her, night match, second round, is tough. I know she's hungry to win more and she had that feeling of winning a Grand Slam, so playing against an experienced player like her was very difficult. I was a little nervous in the beginning and to be able to win against her in three sets, be able to battle it out until the end, it was a great feeling to boost the confidence."

 Fernandez appeared to run out of gas in a loss to top seed Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals, but any chance to face a top-10 player is a learning experience. 

"If I put her to hit with somebody that hits really hard and is really powerful on any day that she's fresh, she doesn't get out-powered, she destroys them, because it gives her exactly the type of ball that she needs that she wants and that she loves. But quarter-finals, finals the week before," Jorge said glancing at his daughter, "5-foot-4 and, I’m winking here, 5-foot-5 in her head, right?"

Leylah Annie perks up and smiles, "I'm 5-foot-6, that's what I’m thinking."

"Yeah, and I'm 6-foot-1," said Jorge, who is very much not 6-foot-1. "I'm always evaluating every match and the Svitolina match also showed a few things that we need to work on. The Bencic match was great, it was fantastic, but it was indoors. The conditions were different and they are different types of players – she plays [the ball] early, but Svitolina gave us a different look. We're more focused short-term on top-10 players and what we need to do when we get that opportunity. What is it we need to correct? Meeting a Svitolina in the first round is different than meeting a Svitolina in the quarter-finals."

 

BNP Paribas Open

Indian Wells, Calif. 

Ranking: 118

Fernandez requested a wildcard into Indian Wells before the event was suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The family didn't have high hopes, as those automatic entries usually go to players who represent the country where the tournament is taking place or high-profile stars who have fallen down the ranks. 

"It was a funny situation," Leylah Annie said. "We were at dinner and we were actually talking about the wildcard and Indian Wells and saying that I would probably not get it."

Jorge adds, "It was crazy. We were sitting there and we're already on Plan B."

Then the phone call came. One of the most prestigious tournaments in the world, referred to as "the fifth major" by many, was so impressed by Fernandez's run that they were willing to extend her an automatic spot in the main draw. 

Of course, the emotional rollercoaster took a downward turn a couple days later when organizers made the right call to pull the plug. Still, it was another chance for Jorge to reinforce something. 

"It's important for her to realize how difficult these things are to get so when she gets on the court she doesn't take these things for granted. I've always said, 'Wildcards aren't given, they're earned.' And then you earn your ranking. Once you get them you got to do something with them."

Still fresh in the memory bank was a 6-0, 6-1 loss in Toronto last summer against Marie Bouzkova after Tennis Canada offered Fernandez a wildcard into the country's biggest event.

"You can't just show up," Jorge said. "I mean, the biggest disappointment for me was last year when she got the Rogers Cup wildcard and she got destroyed on court. It wasn't that she lost, I just felt that we didn't take the responsibility that we needed to make that wildcard really mean something. So next time around, when we get that WC, oh, we're going all in."

 

The present

The Fernandez family is currently camped out at their Boynton Beach training base, waiting out the pandemic.

"We train in the morning," noted Leylah Annie. "There's public courts right around the corner so we train maybe an hour or two and then a small physical fitness [session], but the whole afternoon is doing homework."

"We're staying away from people," Jorge assures. "When we say it's a public court it's really in the middle of nowhere. It's only two really beat-up courts that we've used from the very beginning and we've really stayed isolated from everybody else, so a lot of social distancing."

And while they wait for the season to resume a sibling rivalry has been renewed. 

"I think Leylah was a little surprised by the level of tennis her sister was bringing forward," said Jorge of their latest sessions. "Of course, she's getting tired of being the little sister and wants to beat her sister and it was nice to see. One day last week, you know, (16-year-old) Bianca won so she was floating through the air for 23 hours, right? And then the next day Leylah won, she brought her 'A' game that day, and she was floating through air while the other one was sulking, walking around saying this is going to be a little harder than she thought. So, it's kind of fun to see."

The break in play is allowing Fernandez to recharge her batteries a bit after a busy start to the season and also get ahead on schoolwork. 

"The last few years she's been finishing her school year around November, December," noted Jorge. "She's on the road working, and then she has to go back to the hotel and try to catch up all the time so it's really been a balancing act for her so we're going to be positive about it and take full advantage of this time to try and progress on the school front."

Leylah Annie believes she's on track to graduate in June. 

The future

There is a lot of uncertainty right now as the world deals with the novel coronavirus. We know there will be no tennis until at least early June, and, considering the global nature of the sport, the break seems likely to be longer. 

"We don't have a set date, but what we do know is that whenever we do get the green light it's whoever hits the ground running fast and doesn’t fall that will finish 2020 in good position for 2021," said Jorge. "That's why our training is still very, very tough. I've cut it to only once a day, but that once a day, you know, it's about fixing those little problems we saw. 

"We had the momentum, but so did other players. Some of them will come back good, others will come back bad. Welcome to life. It's the way it works, so we're trying to be pragmatic again and be positive and keep it going. I think if she keeps up what she's doing in practice, the day that we get a green light I wouldn't be surprised if she gets a couple more quarter-finals and semifinals. It wouldn't surprise me at all." 

The determination in the voice of Jorge and Leylah Annie is evident. The patriarch recalls having frustrating conversations with tennis coaches in the past, who questioned whether his diminutive daughter could develop into a force on tour. 

"I always say, 'Lionel Messi's not the biggest one, Sidney Crosby wasn't the biggest one. Mike Tyson wasn't the biggest heavyweight. Wayne Gretzky wasn't the biggest one,' ... when she learns this professional game, watching her in the finals with a heavy hitter is going to be a thing of beauty, because she'll be fresh, she'll be fine, her timing will be impeccable. But it takes a few beatings before we get there, so that's what we're working on more than anything."

"I'm not the biggest player," Leylah Annie said, "not the most powerful player either, but I have speed. I'm also accurate with my shots and that’s enough for me to beat the player that's in front of me that day. Now, it's just to improve the weaknesses that I have and get better every day to keep proving them wrong to achieve the goals I've set from the beginning."

Those goals are lofty: win a Grand Slam and be No. 1 in the world. 

Jorge has mentored Leylah Annie from the very beginning. His vision is clear. 

"I want her to fight like a player who is 900 in the world and is fighting to improve. We want to be humble, but we also want to have the confidence that we can beat anybody on any given day. We want to work on having the heart of a champion, the mind of a champion and things will fall into place."

They are both fuelled by the critics. 

"For me, personally, I got a chip on my shoulder, absolutely," Jorge said. "I'm never going to back down from a fight. I guess that kind of rubbed off a little bit on her and she's more quiet about it, more polite."

Leylah Annie looks at her dad with a smile on her face and quips, "But the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."