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Leylah Fernandez, Who Beat Osaka, Leads a Canadian Charge

The Canadian flag is everywhere at the U.S. Open, where Canadian players are winning on courts across the grounds and beyond. On Saturday, Bianca …

Leylah Fernandez, Who Beat Osaka, Leads a Canadian Charge

The Canadian flag is everywhere at the U.S. Open, where Canadian players are winning on courts across the grounds and beyond.

On Saturday, Bianca Andreescu won in Louis Armstrong Stadium while Denis Shapovalov waited to play there in the night session. On Friday, Felix Auger-Aliassime beat Roberto Bautista Agut in Armstrong, Vasek Pospisil won at doubles on Court 10, and three Canadian girls won junior qualifying matches at the Cary Leeds Center in the Bronx.

The biggest win took place in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday, when Leylah Fernandez, a French Open junior champion two years ago, beat No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka to muscle her way toward the front of Canada’s booming tennis program, an assembly line of players that includes four men in the top 60 and six girls in the top 100 of the junior rankings.

Not bad for a country with about a tenth of the population of the United States. But Canadian players are pouring over the border and making New York their temporary home.

“I’m just glad that there’s so many Canadians going deep in this tournament,” Fernandez said shortly after she had showed the steely nerve it took to oust the defending champion in the world’s biggest tennis stadium. Fernandez, who turns 19 on Monday, is the latest young Canadian to captivate the tennis world, following in the path of Andreescu, who won the 2019 U.S. Open; Auger-Aliassime; Shapovalov; and, before them, Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard.

A country of about 37 million, Canada has made a concerted effort over the past several years to develop elite players, and it is working. Most of them pass through Tennis Canada’s high-performance development program, and many were either immigrants themselves or the Canadian-born children of immigrants.

Fernandez belongs to that list, too, although her route is unique. Her father and coach, Jorge Fernandez, was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and moved to Montreal with his family when he was a small boy. Fernandez’s mother, Irene Exevea, is of Filipino descent from Toronto.

Jorge Fernandez describes himself as a former journeyman professional soccer player in the lower levels of the game, mostly in Latin America. He never knew anything about tennis until his daughter showed interest as a schoolgirl.

“She played some soccer in Montreal,” the elder Fernandez said in a telephone interview Saturday, “but I didn’t want her to just follow me. I wanted her to find her own passion.”

That turned out to be tennis, but Leylah struggled to gain the favor of the local tennis associations. She was part of a Quebec-based development program for a while, but it dropped her, Jorge said, in part because she was tiny. She still wanted to play.

“I told her, ‘It’s OK, we’ll do it ourselves,’” her father said.

They plunged ahead on their own, and soon enough, Leylah Fernandez was tearing through the ranks of her age group and several years above it, winning so many tournaments that Tennis Canada officials finally invited her to train with them.

But as often happens when parents hand their children over to tennis federations, there were differences of opinion, especially over how much Leylah should play. Ultimately, Jorge Fernandez took his daughter out of the program, although amicably, he says.

“I told them we would meet up again,” he explained, “and look, we have.”

He continued: “It’s OK to have disagreements. We all wanted the same thing, which is for Leylah to be successful. We just had a different idea of how to do it, for a while. But they have been doing great work. I tip my hat to them with all the success they have had with so many Canadians going through the program.”

Bianca Andreescu playing on Saturday.Credit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

Leylah’s mother thought their daughter would be one of those successes, too. According to Jorge Fernandez, Exevea thought he was crazy to remove his daughter from a program that provided free coaching and more. But he was committed to doing it himself, so he and Leylah and her younger sister, Bianca Jolie, who is 17, continued to train on their own in Montreal. (The oldest, Jodeci, is a dentist in Ohio and did not play tennis competitively).

That left the chief bread-winning duties to Exevea, who, unlike Jorge Fernandez, has a university degree. She moved to California so she could earn U.S. dollars and stayed there for three years while Jorge tapped into his knowledge as a former professional athlete to coach his daughters.

“Those were difficult years, because they only saw their mother maybe two times a year,” Jorge said. “We finally decided to move to Florida. It’s the Mecca of tennis, and we could have the whole family together again.”

To learn the art of tennis and coaching it, Jorge Fernandez immersed himself in the sport, reading texts and watching videos on the internet. His goal was to cultivate a balance between work and fun to ensure that Leylah never got burned out. He taught his daughter, who is 5 feet 6 inches, to study Justine Henin, who is listed at 5-6¾, because it seemed like an appropriate blueprint for success.

Despite her size, Leylah Fernandez is a potent ball striker. Her father claims that, pound for pound, Leylah is “the best power hitter on the tour,” and she derives confidence from her strength. Even before she took the court against Osaka, she said she knew she could beat the four-time major champion.

“From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone,” she said Friday night, before noting that it was past her bedtime.

When she won the French Open junior title in 2019, Leylah Fernandez asked her father if they could celebrate at McDonald’s. Always diligent about nutrition, and in a city known for its culinary expertise, Fernandez chose the fast food restaurant as a way to splurge. Her father agreed.

“It was just the two of us,” Jorge said. “It was sweet, but at the same time, the whole family should have been there. It’s one of the difficult things of the tennis life, all the travel.”

Jorge Fernandez could not attend his daughter’s victory over Osaka. He was in Florida attending to business. But before she took the court, Leylah called him for the strategic game plan, and he was true to his ethos.

“He told me to go on the court, have fun,” she said, and she followed the advice perfectly, flashing a brilliant smile during a relaxed but exuberant speech after the match.

For a time, her family had debated moving to Ecuador so that the girls could play for that country. Instead, they retained their loyalty to Canada, and Leylah Fernandez plays on the Canadian team for the Billie Jean King Cup. On Sunday, she will play No. 16 seed Angelique Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam tournament champion, for a spot in the quarterfinals.

Already, she and her compatriots have helped raise the profile of Canadian tennis a notch higher.

“Our goal here is just to have fun on court,” she said, “to do our best. Hopefully we can inspire kids in Canada to keep going.”

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