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Drive to Thrive: Leylah Fernandez returns to US Open after unforgettable finals run
Fernandez raced from underdog to unbelievable at last year’s US Open. Twists and turns have followed, but she returns to New York as a viable threat to win it all—and do it in style.
Published Aug 23, 2022
WATCH: Fernandez made a winning return to action at the National Bank Open, where she scored a three-set victory over Storm Sanders in front of home fans.
Leylah Fernandez was keeping it loose this spring, or so she claimed.
Exceedingly polite & disarmingly thoughtful, the Canadian can be a bit tightly wound—no idle cliché given the signature bun she wore all the way to the 2021 US Open final.
“I’m glad that you enjoyed all the suffering from the US Open!” she joked to begin our interview from Miami.
Her shy smile belies a fiercely competitive streak first nurtured by a tight-knit family, and which later led the Canadian to lift her arms in triumph through multiple three-set thrillers in Flushing Meadows.
“I think it’s something from inside of me,” the 19-year-old mused, “because from a very young age I’ve always wanted to be on the first court playing in front of parents. Even in school, apart from presentations in front of the class that I hated—but when I had to, like, do a mini play, sing, dance, I would go out there, have fun. I would enjoy it a lot.
“Over the years I’ve been learning how to use the crowd’s energy, how to use it to my advantage even when they’re cheering against me.”
Despite a defeat to fellow teenager Emma Raducanu in a historic championship match, the Montréal-born Fernandez—of Ecuadorian and Filipino-Canadian parents—had unequivocally endeared herself to a New York City audience that willed her to consecutive upsets over Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka.
“I think I’ve been doing some incredible things,” she says in retrospect. “I don’t know. I think one word that really stuck to me is ‘magical,’ because not only [was] my run really good but also the way I’m playing right now.
“I’m just having fun, I’m trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy. I’m glad that whatever I’m doing on court, the fans are loving it and I’m loving it, too. We’ll say it’s magical.”
Fernandez repaid New Yorkers’ love with a runner-up speech that recognized the 20-year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, which occurred just under 12 months before Fernandez was born.
“I know on this day it was especially hard for New York and everyone around the United States,” she said, reclaiming the microphone to make her poignant addendum. “I just want to say I hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.”
Armed with the self-belief that validation and newfound fame brings, Fernandez was sporting a different look by the start of the 2022 season, eschewing the so-called “business bun” for a Lululemon scrunchie that helped her boast a bouncier curl.
“I always preferred playing in a bun because my hair would fly around when I played,” she explains. “But one day my dad suggested I practice with a ponytail, thinking it would be a fun change, so I did—and I found I liked it! It was something different and I was enjoying it a lot.
“I was also getting scrunchies from Lululemon and I wanted to wear them. It’s a way for me to have fun and be different on court, so I’m not always the same. I like being able to change my style from time to time.”
The new look garnered rave reviews but yielded mixed results. Though she captured her second career title in early March—defending her maiden tour-level title in Monterrey—big-stage success proved elusive with pre-quarterfinal exits at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami. By Roland Garros, the bun was back.
Even at her most relaxed, Fernandez is on a steadfast, borderline obsessive quest for self-improvement—both as a player and, as she repeats throughout our chat, “as a person.”
“When I won the [Monterrey] title I was very happy, most of all with the way I fought and how I was able to get through some tough moments,” she says. “I was glad that everything is good, and we’re just having fun.
“I think it’s important that we’re willing to improve and get better every day. When we get on court, we’re trying to be positive and leave the court with a smile, knowing that we trained hard and had fun.”
Fernandez often evokes a plural “we,” which references a team overseen by father Jorge, a former footballer from Guayaquil and an ever-present figure offering tips on technique, tactics and, evidently, hairstyles.
On tour with his daughter full-time in the wake of her meteoric rise, he was noticeably absent for the start of her ascent, opting to stay and watch all seven of Leylah’s US Open matches from home.
“I think he trusted in me and in my game that I was going to do great things in New York,” she said in September, “that I was going to follow his game plan, that I’m going to figure all the solutions out from any problem that I encounter.”
The two are believed to share a similar intensity, leaving mother Irene and sister Bianca to strike a more calming balance in the Fernandez family. While Leylah built her game with Jorge in Montréal, Irene spent three years working in California, a separation that profoundly impacted the youngster, while also imparting a sense of independence.
“From a very young age I’m just a happy-go-lucky girl,” Leylah said after backing up her improbable upset of defending US Open champion Osaka with a come-from-behind win over 2016 champion Kerber. “I never really take things too seriously, but I was just having fun with anything and everything that I do.
“I think sometimes the way that my parents would teach me off court, saying that you can’t take things too seriously, you’ve got to be mature but at the same time just be a kid, let loose, eat chocolate when you want to, and just have fun, watch movies, go past your bedtime.
“We’ve gone through so many things together as a family,” she added after reaching the final. “I’m just glad that right now everything’s going on our side.”
After an unremarkable clay-court swing, it appeared things were at last trending back towards Fernandez in Paris. The No. 17 seed made the most of a brutal draw: reminiscent of her US Open heroics, Fernandez scored back-to-back three-set wins over Belinda Bencic and Amanda Anisimova to reach her second Grand Slam quarterfinal.
“I think after the US Open, I did put a little bit more pressure on myself,” she admitted to press after rallying from a third-set deficit against Bencic. “That’s normal, because I want to reproduce what I did in the US Open over and over again.”
With unseeded Martina Trevisan standing between her and the semifinals, the 2019 French Open junior champ was in a decidedly New York state of mind on the terre battue.
“I think it’s actually similar experiences. I’m just enjoying every moment on court,” she said in Paris. “The crowd, French crowds, are amazing. They love tennis. They love competition, so you just see how much enthusiasm they have for the players.”
After dropping the first set to the Italian 6–2, Fernandez won a tiebreak to even the contest. But something still wasn’t right. Earlier, Fernandez took a medical timeout to address a foot issue that was clearly limiting her movement. Jorge was apoplectic in the stands, aggressively gesturing to his daughter to convey his wish that she retire from the match—rather than risk further injury.
Fernandez’s competitiveness proved a double-edged sword that day: she defiantly played on, only to bow out to Trevisan in three physical sets. The post-match inspection revealed she had sustained a Grade 3 fracture at the top of her right foot.
Speaking to Canadian broadcaster TSN after the injury was announced, Jorge minced no words when asked how it felt to watch his child play through pain.
“Anger,” he said after a long pause, later criticizing the WTA for creating too much distance between players and coaches. “There was a moment where I could have put some sense into her, and maybe instead of what it is now, it could have been a little bit less.”
For her part, Leylah resurfaced on Instagram a week later—in a boot and on crutches—facing the reality that she would be forced to miss Wimbledon.
“In need of some well wishes more than ever,” she wrote with a heart emoji. “The fight in me will continue just after some PT appointments.”
The fight is indeed on for Fernandez to get healthy in time to return to the site of her greatest success. But what so briefly sidelined her—that indomitable competitive instinct—is the very thing that will nourish her back to health as she begins an otherwise uncertain summer.
At the time of her injury, Fernandez was in search of new media recommendations and diversions, but back in Miami she was, in her words, “completely addicted” to Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive. A consummate student, it turns out Fernandez takes binge-watching as seriously as anything else.
“I restarted the whole show from the beginning so I can get to the last season and I can feel all the emotions of what’s happening,” she says. “I want to feel caught up and have everything fresh on my mind.”
The docuseries had quickly become a favorite around the locker room—a tennis version has been in the works—but on its face appeared to be an unlikely fit for Fernandez, who not only tends towards calmer pursuits off the court, but also plays a game that lacks a Lewis Hamilton-level need for speed.
“I think it’s more of the adrenaline that you feel,” she says of the series. “They’ve done a good job of showing the kind of pressure that each driver goes through, and the amount of emotional and mental fortitude that’s required to succeed. I think that’s something tennis players like watching and can relate to, because we also go through that.”
Fernandez’s on-court style is ultimately one Kerber saw mirroring her own, a combination of ruthless counterpunching with deft, lefty angles, requiring boundless adrenaline to carry her through titanic matches.
During the 2021 US Open, Fernandez learned to channel a crowd’s energy into that adrenaline. Should she make it back onto another big stage this summer, expect her to be back in the driver’s seat on Arthur Ashe Stadium—as intense as ever.