Where Leylah Fernandez, my daughter, gets her fierceness

Where Leylah Fernandez, my daughter, gets her fierceness

'A lot of players are more talented than Leylah, but few are as gutsy. She's proven it on the biggest stage in the world'

By Jorge Fernandez for CBC Sports
October 10, 2021

This interview with Jorge Fernandez, father and trainer of Leylah Annie Fernandez, U.S. Open finalist, was originally published by Radio-Canada and written by Jean-François Poirier.

"Papi, I am in real pain. You're right. I understand why you hate losing so much."

I have an agreement with my daughter Leylah. As her coach, when I am not at her games, I insist that she speak to me shortly after she plays. She had just lost the U.S. Open final. I was in my living room in Boynton Beach, Fla. She was in New York, at Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the crowd had cheered her dazzling performance throughout the tournament.

I knew she had tears in her eyes, I could hear it in her voice. It is important that I listen to her immediately after a game, so that I know what is affecting her; her real thoughts, unfiltered. I also knew that she would overcome her grief and get back to work as soon as she returned to Florida, to continue her apprenticeship. She's only 19...

Leylah is like me: she hates defeat. You may get used to the joys of winning, but the emotion you feel when you lose is so powerful that you want to do anything to avoid it. Yes, it hurts a lot. And in New York, Leylah tripped a step from the finish line. Behind her smile, which charmed so many people during that two week tournament, she suffered.

I hadn't even watched the trophy ceremony where Leylah found another way to capture the hearts of New Yorkers, standing at that microphone, saying she hoped to match the strength and resilience New York has shown over the 20 years since 9-11. I never tell my daughter what to say. I trust Leylah. I want her to be independent, to make her decisions in life. And I wasn't surprised to learn that she had this instinct to congratulate New Yorkers. Leylah is a mature, sensitive young woman who listens to people. She speaks French, English and Spanish. Her comments in the public eye are in line with her whole personality.
I watched the final on TV at our house, with a friend and cousin, while my wife Irene and our other daughter Bianca were in New York to cheer on Leylah in person.

Why didn't I make the trip to New York?

It was a family decision. My youngest daughter Bianca was competing in a tournament in Spain while Leylah was playing her first matches of the Grand Slam tournament. I didn't want to make a choice between the two and give my preference to one or the other.  Why didn't I accompany Bianca on her way to New York after her elimination in Spain? Because I could do my coaching job from home without disturbing Leylah's routine.

I have no regrets, even though she lost. And I tip my hat to Emma Raducanu because she was the best that day. And if we had to lose, I thought it best to happen against her, a barely 19-year-old qualifier who hasn't missed a set in 10 games.  That was a gigantic performance. I’ll  tell you how I felt, seeing this tournament from a distance. And I won’t sugar coat it.

Leylah Annie Fernandez reacts to first-set win against Aryna Sabalenka during the semifinals of the US Open.  Sept. 9, 2021 New York. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press) Leylah Annie Fernandez reacts to first-set win against Aryna Sabalenka during the semifinals of the US Open. Sept. 9, 2021 New York. (Elise Amendola/The Associated Press)

First, sincere thanks to everyone who supported Leylah during the tournament. Our family has received so many expressions of affection from all over the world. Leylah is still getting messages and gifts, and her new social media fans are so plentiful. Thank you for everything. This wave of love is very touching.

I was already proud of her before the tournament started. Today, I'm just happy for her. My pride remains the same. Leylah overcame a lot of prejudice against smaller players before reaching her first major tournament final.

Despite everything, I am a little sad. You may know our history, but our journey has not been easy. We weren't rich and it took big sacrifices and financial risks to get Leylah and Bianca to play with the elite. As they say, there was a good head wind, but Leylah, Irene, Bianca, and our oldest daughter Jodeci, we  stayed standing.

How many children miss the opportunity to demonstrate their skills because parents do not have the means, the experience or the right contacts? How many give up their dreams because people in positions of power block their way? For every Leylah, there are many other forgotten people who are told they don't stand a chance, that they are crazy because they see things differently and ultimately get pushed aside.

At Flushing Meadows, the world finally realized Leylah's true worth. When you get to know her, you understand why her father was crazy like that. A person like me, you can say no to me all day long. But Leylah? She is so kind, in love with life and has such extraordinary strength of character. There are many players with more talent than Leylah, but very few as gutsy. She's proven it on the biggest stage in the world.

People said “She's too small, she has no power!” We heard them too often, those remarks. I am hearing these same people today, saying “We knew she would get there!”

I would rather hear them admit they were wrong, and that they didn't expect Leylah to be able to play as she does. If everyone had believed in Leylah, there wouldn't have been a documentary made about our lives. She wouldn't have had to overcome the obstacles she did to become a professional.

I'm happy because this all gradually opens Leylah's eyes. I don't want her to be tainted like I am.

From left to right, Jorge and Leylah Fernandez, coach and athlete, father and daughter. (Katrina Elena/Radio-Canada) From left to right, Jorge and Leylah Fernandez, coach and athlete, father and daughter. (Katrina Elena/Radio-Canada)

Okay, let me get back to the tournament.

I think the tipping point came during the duel against Kaia Kanepi in the second round. Leylah had won the first set, 7-5, but was one game behind in the second when the rain forced the game to stop.

I mentioned that Leylah contacts me after her games? Well, she also does that during breaks if she can.

This conversation was lively. I told her she wasn’t facing a top 10 player, she wasn’t following the plan and that this game should be over already. Leylah was really angry. She hung up, then ended the game in 20 minutes at 7-5. I think her momentum came at that point.

Of course Leylah gets angry. She has character and she's not an angel. She used to get mad at me. Now she mostly gets angry with herself. I've been telling her for a year and a half that if she played on my soccer team, I would keep her on the bench because she doesn't want to do what the coach tells her to do. If the established plan requires you to do two things in the field depending on the type of situation, you do them 100 per cent, no exceptions. To put that in perspective, I am a former soccer coach. I had to do my homework to teach my daughters tennis. I do not have the knowledge of the greatest experts, but my experience serves in my approach to the game.

Leylah Fernandez, left,  and Emma Raducanu pose after the women's singles final 
 at the 2021 U.S. Open in New York. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press) Leylah Fernandez, left, and Emma Raducanu pose after the women's singles final at the 2021 U.S. Open in New York. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

Before you are successful, you have to learn. As a coach, I have an idea in mind. In preparing Leylah for the big tournaments, I will ask her to play a certain way against players who are theoretically worse than her. The point is to prepare her for when she faces the best opponents. I get angry, even if she wins, when she doesn’t follow the plan.

The best way to take nervousness and fear out of your game is through repetition. It's easy to do that in training. But in a game against a top-10 rival, it's another story. You can play with your instincts when you start out, but you need a plan that you follow to the letter when you beat the best.

At 19, you're not the boss! Leylah remains in apprenticeship, despite her successes. In my opinion, at 21 she will reach her full potential. Our relationship has evolved over time. Yes, I made mistakes, but so did she. How many times did I complain about my parents or my coaches in my life? I lost count. We have adjusted. And as long as she has that thirst for victory, I'll be by her side, if she wants.

Leylah Fernandez walks on the court before the U.S. Open women's singles final  in New York. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press) Leylah Fernandez walks on the court before the U.S. Open women's singles final in New York. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

In the third round, Leylah had a date at centre court with Naomi Osaka, the defending champion and third seed. I have to tell you, I was angry that my daughter could only train at Arthur Ashe Stadium before this mentally demanding clash. John, Leylah's agent, who was on site, remembers this conversation. He had to negotiate with the organizers so that she could hit balls on the centre court before the match was held in the early evening.

I applaud John for making sure Leylah got a practice period at 7 a.m. Osaka had a clear advantage over Leylah because she knew the court. This is no small detail. So my daughter got to train with the son of ex-player and commentator Mary Jo Fernandez. A 30-minute warm-up before the game is not enough to chase away butterflies. Her training served our cause well.

Leylah finally managed to win against Osaka, who lost her patience. Naomi didn't like it when my daughter hit winning shots and the crowd cheered for her. Leylah's relentlessness made the difference and the crowd rewarded her.

I have to admit that what she did in New York - becoming the crowd favorite, thanks to her surly game and enchanting smile - surprised me a little. I didn't see it coming. But I knew Leylah liked to put on a show. She fell in love with the crowds at 15, in her first appearance at the Rogers Cup qualifying. She  understood that it was necessary to have fun with the spectators even if they were on the other side. That was a lesson learned in a semi-final in Acapulco against a Mexican player. Leylah's relationship with New Yorkers has been magical.

Leylah Fernandez, moments  after defeating Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals at the U.S. Open. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press) Leylah Fernandez, moments after defeating Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals at the U.S. Open. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

How do you coach from a distance?

Leylah and I were on a video conference every day discussing the game plan. Afterwards, I would send her some video links for her to analyze the trends and weaknesses of her rival that I wanted her to exploit at the appropriate time.

It's important to keep cards up your sleeve. Roger Federer is capable of hitting aces on every serve, but he's waiting for the right moment to pull out his best shots and surprise his opponent.

Leylah watched the videos and then called me back to confirm that she had seen the holes in her opponent's game. She loved this way of doing things, which we were testing for the first time at the US Open.

Previously, I was the one who to lead these discussions. Now she is the first to speak and explain to me what she intends to do. I listen to her, but I challenge her. Until recently, I wanted Leylah to focus on her own game. But now that I know she's got a handle on her emotions and what she's been taught, I can set goals for her based on her rival's game.

Leylah defeated Kerber, Svitolina and Sabalenka in quick succession. The 16th, 5th and 2nd favorites. Three victories snatched in three rounds. And little by little, analysts changed their talk about her. She was no longer winning because the other player hadn't played their best, but because she deserved the victory.

I have a confession to make.  If there was one reason I could have gone to Flushing Meadows instead of watching the games on TV, it would have been to not hear from the analysts. Their comments annoy me too often. They know everything, but they don't know anything about Leylah. Sometimes I would have liked to connect with the Canadian or Quebec networks!

Jorge and Leylah Fernandez practising at home in Florida. (Katrina Elena/Radio-Canada) Jorge and Leylah Fernandez practising at home in Florida. (Katrina Elena/Radio-Canada)

Leylah can also make me blush. She does it on purpose, talking about me in her post-game interviews in front of the crowd, even though she knows full well I prefer to stay in the wings.

“My father at home is going to prepare my game plan, blah-blah-blah…”

I told her to stop and she laughed. But I forgive her. Leylah wanted the public to know that her father was also her coach and she wanted me to be respected in this role. My daughter has a hard head like father.

I would have been there if I could have been seated next to her during the game. But in tennis, even sitting in the stands, the coach is not allowed to communicate with his protege. A coach must remain silent. The coach is handcuffed. The benefit of being there is not that great. And me, I feel okay, not being there.

By the end of the season in November, our goal is to maintain Leylah’s level of play. Leylah isn't under pressure to win at all costs. Our year is already spectacular. She jumped from 73rd to 28th in the world.

She will go to the Indian Wells tournament and the Billie Jean King Cup. All her opponents will have analyzed her game. Of course I'm afraid for Leylah because she will have to work harder in training. But she will rise to the challenge.

I don't think Leylah is going to change her attitude because she got a check for $1.25M US. She did not embark on this adventure for the money, but to become the best tennis player in the world and serve as a role model.

You have to be careful with the money. We know what it means to have none. If we base our decisions on money, we might end up in a living room dancing with the devil instead of being in the game. It’s new to us. We have to learn to find our balance. Others have mismanaged this transition and lost their footing. Leylah will have a better team thanks to this prize money. We will be looking for a coach who can help her reach the top 10.

Finally, I recognize the wonderful contribution of my wife Irene. Unlike me, she has always been a tennis fan. She played a huge role in the development of our daughters by providing for our needs as best she could so that I could train them. It’s a great reward for her. In New York, she watched over Leylah to keep her smiling. Her second job was to make sure she listened to her dad!

And like Leylah, Irene had the opportunity to meet Billie Jean King, a childhood idol. It's funny, but it reminds me of a time when we lived as a family in Quebec, 10 years ago, when we lived in Vaudreuil.

Leylah and Bianca wanted to play top tennis. I was not convinced because I preferred soccer, a less expensive sport. We took a vote. I remember this picture: two of my three daughters sitting on one side of the couch, me on the other.  Irene sits in the girls' camp. I’m alone, so I turn for support to our dog, a big pitbull. As a child, Leylah always had fun with him. She would run in the hallway and the dog would follow suit. They almost hit each other so many times! I wonder if Leylah didn’t start practicing her footwork with him, way back then. Either way, I hoped he would approach his master. But the dog stepped over and joined the three girls!

I was stuck. Even my dog was not my corner. But today, I'm no longer surprised.

The dog’s name? King, as in Billie Jean King.

(Top large image by Katrina Elena/Radio Canada)

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