Leylah Fernandez was already feeling slightly out of place on the tennis practice courts at the Australian Open days before the tournament was set to begin this past January. At 17, just a year removed from playing in the girls' final and ranked No. 207 in the world, Fernandez had made it through qualifying and now was in her first main draw at a major. It still didn't feel real.
And then she heard -- no, felt -- the whiz of the ball two courts down. She looked over. There in the blazing-hot Melbourne summer sun was Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 seed in the men's draw and then the winner of 19 Grand Slam titles. She was in temporary disbelief as she realized she was playing in the same tournament as someone she had watched on television and had admired most of her life.
"He was training as if he was playing a match," Fernandez remembered recently. "He was so intense out there. There was a crowd watching so I wanted to impress them, too, and it put so much pressure on me. There were so many unknowns for me at that point and I didn't know how I was going to play [throughout the season], but seeing him out there inspired me to play like that in my trainings, too, and step it up. It was definitely one of those surreal moments."
That was just the beginning of Fernandez's 2020 season, her first as a professional on the WTA Tour.
And somehow despite the strangeness and uncertainty of the year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the newness of playing on the sport's biggest stages and finding herself occasionally intimidated by the off-court sight of many of the superstars she grew up watching, Fernandez, 18, had a breakout year. Marked by an appearance in the Mexican Open final, a third-round run at the French Open and finishing the year with a career-high No. 88 ranking, she heads into the 2021 season as one of tennis' rising stars and with her sights on much more.
"The hope is to get to the second week in Australia, and then to win one or two titles this season," she said. "Ultimately my goal is to finish in the top 10 this year. I know I have a long way to get there, but that's the goal and I think I can do it."
If the 6-year-old Fernandez had had her way, she would be trying to make her way onto the Canadian women's soccer team these days and not up the tennis rankings. Her father, Jorge, coached a senior-level regional men's soccer team in Montreal and he would bring Fernandez and her younger sister, Bianca -- herself an up-and-coming tennis player -- to his practices.
Leylah was enamored by the game and wanted to play, but Jorge was hesitant. He wanted his daughters to blaze their own paths and not be swayed by his interests. He begrudgingly allowed them to play, but also signed them up for every sport available -- including volleyball, swimming, baseball and track. Looking to add another individual sport to the mix, Jorge went to the sporting goods department of a local Canadian Tire and asked the cashier for suggestions. The cashier showed him the racket section and mentioned badminton and pingpong before getting to tennis.
"When my dad saw the tennis rackets, and saw these beautiful pink ones with flowers, he got this vision in his head," Fernandez said. "He asked for two, because I think he imagined two little girls playing at the park, and then afterward getting ice cream with the family and just for fun. Such a beautiful image, right?
"Of course that idea was very short-lived because the first time I hit the ball, I fell in love with it. Some coaches pretty quickly saw I was talented and noticed I had a good hand-eye coordination. And by the age of 10 or 11 years old, I decided I wanted to be a tennis pro. I didn't want to only do it for recreation -- I wanted to play tennis all the way and make it to the WTA."
Jorge, who moved from Ecuador to Canada as a child, didn't know anything about tennis other than that his daughters loved it. But he was inspired by Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, who trained his daughters with a limited knowledge of the sport. It wasn't long before Leylah was attracting attention from Tennis Canada.
"I felt she was special right from the start," said Sylvain Bruneau, who is in charge of the women's side for Tennis Canada and is 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu's coach. "The first time I met her, she was probably 11, and it was part of my job to help the country's most promising young players. It was refreshing to watch her because she was playing with so much action on the ball and she was able to do so many different things, and you could see she just had such a big heart.
"Something that day that really impressed me, and I still remember clearly, was her focus and her concentration when I was talking to her. She was just taking it all in. It was something I had only ever really experienced with [2014 Wimbledon finalist] Eugenie Bouchard. The first few times I was on court I felt a different vibe from Genie and it was the same with Leylah."
Believing they would have to make a change to get both sisters to the next level, the family relocated to Boynton Beach, Florida, when Leylah was 14 to train year-round. Her mother, Irene, who is from Toronto but has Filipino parents, split her time between Florida and California where she had found a job that could best financially support the family and the girls' lofty ambitions. Fernandez admits it was hard to be away from her mom for such long periods of time but understood and remains grateful for the sacrifice.
With Jorge remaining their coach, Leylah and Bianca trained primarily on local public courts and at several of the nearby tennis academies. The family kept in close contact with Bruneau and Tennis Canada. Having spoken French in school in Montreal, Leylah said the toughest part of transition was attending an online American and English-speaking school. (She's fluent in English, French and Spanish and typically uses all three languages on her Instagram posts.)
At 16, Leylah played in her first major as a junior at the 2018 French Open. She advanced to the semifinals before losing to American phenom Coco Gauff, and followed that with a quarterfinal run at the US Open juniors and a finals appearance in Australia. And then, a year after her loss to Gauff, she had her breakthrough -- winning the 2019 French Open girls' singles title with a dominant 6-3, 6-2 victory in the final. She didn't drop a set during her week in Paris, and became the first Canadian girl to win a junior major since Bouchard in 2012.
Despite her success, Leylah still was starstruck when she saw her idol, seven-time major champion Justine Henin, in the cafeteria at Roland Garros.
"She was eating dinner, and she was right beside us, and I look at my dad and said, 'Oh, my God, there's Justine Henin,'" Leylah said. "I wanted to talk to her so bad but at the same time I'm so nervous, I don't know what to do. But at the end, I didn't have the courage to say hi. A coach once compared my game to hers, so I looked her up, and I fell in love with her game, and how she is, and she's always been my role model through YouTube.
"She was short, she's small, but she was so big beside me. I was intimidated by her aura. My fan girl moment got the best of me, and I didn't want to embarrass myself. So I hope someday I'll be able to actually meet her."
Leylah turned pro soon after and won her first ITF title in July 2019. The expectations were high entering the 2020 season. She lost in the first round in Melbourne to Lauren Davis, but notched the biggest win of her career in Fed Cup (now known as the Billie Jean King Cup) qualifying for Team Canada. Leylah stepped up in the No. 1 singles position in place of the injured Andreescu against Switzerland and scored a straight-sets victory over world No. 4 Belinda Bencic.
"For her, with not that much experience, to take down Bencic at home and the way she did play that incredible tennis, I was a little bit surprised," Bruneau said. "I have really high expectations for Leylah, and I see her doing a lot of great things. It was just a little bit faster than I was expecting but I was very happy."
Fernandez credits her win to the match she lost that weekend against Jil Teichmann.
"The reason that I got that win, it was because of the defeat from the day before, which I really wasn't happy about," she said. "I made a lot of mistakes I shouldn't have. So my coaches made a specific game plan for me and specific things for me to work on and I executed it. It's a great win and a great step forward and it showed me I can compete [with], and even beat, top 5 players, but I still really wanted to win both matches."
Weeks later, after Fernandez was granted a wild-card entry into qualifying for the Mexican Open, she won six matches in seven days and advanced to the final where she lost to Heather Watson in three hard-fought sets. The next week in the Monterrey Open, she beat Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion, to advance to the quarterfinals, where she lost to then-No. 7 ranked Elina Svitolina.
When the season was shut down because of COVID-19, Fernandez was disappointed but not deterred. She went home to Florida, where she and Bianca transformed their garage and street into their own personal training facility -- much to the delight of their Instagram followers. She was determined to use the time as productively as possible and stayed focused on her workouts, as well as her high school coursework.
She was ready when the season resumed in August. Fernandez lost in the second round at the US Open to 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, but it was in Paris where she made her most lasting impression. Knocking off Magda Linette and Polona Hercog in the first two rounds, Fernandez took a 5-1 lead against two-time major champion Petra Kvitova in the third round. Kvitova rallied to take the set and the match 7-5, 6-3, but Leylah put the world on notice.
"It was a little disappointing with the defeat, but I think it showed us where my level is," she said. "As the last match of the year, that gave us an idea of how we need to train for next season so that when I do play against her, or players like her, in the future, I would know what to do. So it's a great experience, a great first time at the French Open, and hopefully next year will be a lot better."
Fernandez finished the year with three ITF tournaments in Egypt, exclusively playing doubles with sister Bianca and even making it to the finals at one event. While there, she was shocked -- and slightly embarrassed -- by a waiter at a restaurant who asked: "Are you Leylah Fernandez from the French Open?" Her family teased Leylah about it all night, but she knows it will become more common if she continues to achieve her goals.
It has been a strange offseason with so much uncertainty surrounding the 2021 schedule, but Leylah seems unfazed. She said she's excited to build on her momentum and is determined to make a steady climb up the rankings. At 5-foot-4, the 18-year-old knows there are critics who believe she's not quite ready to join the elite ranks on tour and will be caught off guard by her bold top-10 goal for the new year. But those who know her expect nothing less.
"Everyone on tour is determined, but she's, I don't want to say at another level, but she's truly something," said Bruneau. "I really respect her mental attitude and how she invests herself in her tennis and her fighting spirit. And you combine that with the fact that she's extremely smart on the court, and very skilled, she just understands the game in a way others don't.
"Having now experienced [early success] with Bianca and Genie, I now know, you don't put limits to what you can do. For Leylah, she's been able to see two other Canadian girls who by the age of 19, 20, were able to achieve so much, and I think that pushes her to say: 'If they were able to do that, why not me?' And I hope, no, I know she can."
Fernandez also looks forward to possibly representing Canada at the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. She's currently the No. 2-ranked Canadian singles player after Andreescu and will more than likely make the team. For Leylah Fernandez, who takes great pride in her father's Ecuadorian background as well as her mother's Filipino heritage, she would be playing for much more than herself.
"It would mean a lot to me," she said. "My grandparents, my family and I sacrificed a lot for me to achieve my dreams and to be able to represent Canada on the big stage -- the Olympics -- it will be one dream accomplished. For me, this would be for my whole family and I would be representing them, all of us, at the Games."