leylah fernandez kisses her monterrey open trophy

Photo : Abierto GNP Seguros

You don’t have to be a mariachi singer to understand how much young Leylah Annie Fernandez must love Mexico, especially since March 21.

Her name resonates effortlessly in the hearts of local fans. She speaks Spanish (her father is Ecuadorian) and, within the space of a year, played the first two finals of her budding career at Mexican events.

Though she came up short in Acapulco as a 17-year-old, she took the top honours in Monterrey at the ripe old age of 18.

Wearing the name of her sponsor, Mexican telecommunications giant Telcel, on her top, the No. 88 dominated Viktorija Golubic (102) of Switzerland and sealed the deal (6-1, 6-4) in 89 minutes.

Better still, she flew through the draw without dropping a single set, ousting CoCo Vandeweghe (210), Kristina Kucova (149), Viktoria Kuzmova (28), Sara Sorribes Tormo (57) and Golubic.

The triumph pushes the Québec teen up 16 spots in the rankings and has her pounding on the door of the Top 70 as the No. 72. Since February 23, 2020, before the tournament in Acapulco, she has had a spectacular climb up 119 places from No. 91.

Leylah is so at home in Mexico that she even transgressed a sacrosanct principle of global television broadcasting by giving her winner’s speech in Spanish. Indeed, knowing that so many more fans are watching on their screens at home than in the stadium—especially in these pandemic times—players tend to stick to English with a few words in the language of the host country when they’re able to.

But, of course, all is forgiven! 

Leylah serving with force
Photo: Abierto GNP Seguro

How did Leylah do it?

While the majority of tennis fans around the world, including many Canadians, are surprised to see Leylah Annie Fernandez rise to the top, I can think of a few people who are likely exchanging knowing smiles: her family members, for one thing, and a lot of folks at Tennis Canada, starting with Séverine Tamborero.

For the past eight years, Séverine has led Tennis Canada’s 10-and-under and high-performance clubs program. A few years back, a young girl named Leylah Annie joined one of her very first groups.

You sense the elation Séverine felt at the end of the match and in the hours that followed, but she was in no way surprised.

“When Leylah was 10, I remember asking her what she wanted to do later on,” recounts Séverine Tamborero. “She said in no uncertain terms that she wanted to be a professional tennis player. When I asked her what her plan was if that didn’t happen, she said: ‘It will definitely happen because it’s what I want!’ and that was it. She’s one of the most singularly determined players I’ve ever met, and that’s the key to her success.”

Photo: Robert Skinner, La Presse

If you’re going on size alone, Fernandez’s tiny 5’4” frame may have you wondering how she could rival the queens of the WTA. 

“I’ll tell you what I told Leylah when she was starting out and have since repeated to many players: heart can sometimes take you further than talent. And having both is even better. For her, the physical aspect was never an issue because she wholly compensates with her determination and drive to win,” affirms Tamborero.

Okay, but how can she challenge the powerful Top 20 players who hit hard from the baseline, like Keys, Sabalenka or Kvitova? Or great all-court competitors?

“You know, Leylah adapts,” she explains. “She knows she can’t stay in drawn out rallies—even though she does alright in that department. She’s already attacking the net more. Now that she has her first title, her next challenge is to adjust her playing style when she’s facing heavy hitters.”

My last (trick) question was followed by a pause and a surprising answer.

Who does Fernandez most remind you of on the court?

“Honestly, no one. Of course, there are very talented players. Some have incredible physical profiles. Many have a bit of both. But the determination Leylah has demonstrated from such an early age, I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like it,” concludes Séverine Tamborero.

That’s quite the compliment!

I rest my case.

Outbreak of … withdrawals?

The Miami Open, the second leg of the famed Sunshine Double, has been hit with an unfortunate outbreak of withdrawals.

Last year, both emblematic 10-day spring events were cancelled due to COVID-19. The first in Indian Wells was postponed until this fall, but Miami remains open for business, though four of the game’s biggest names (my apologies to all the up-and-comers) will be absent.

Denis Shapovalov hits a backhand slice with Dubai written on the ground behind him
Photo : Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Citing injury, fitness and family in that order (or disorder), Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have all elected to skip the event at Hard Rock Stadium. So has Serena Williams.

Also on the sidelines from the men’s Top 25 are Dominic Thiem, Matteo Berettini, Roberto Bautista Agut, Gaël Monfils, Stan Wawrinka and Borna Coric.

As far as the WTA’s contingent, the Top 20 trend is reversed. Only Serena and Johanna Konta are sitting out.

Beyond all the official reasons, including the ones that raised a few eyebrows, some insight was provided by our very own Denis Shapovalov. Speaking with journalist Reem Abulleil at the event in Dubai, he was quoted as saying the following:

“I definitely think there’s going to be a lot of withdrawals and a lot of people not going to tournaments because the prize money is low. In a way, it’s not motivating to play every week and play all the big tournaments because there’s not really a lot in it for us other than the Slams. […] We have other obligations from sponsors, contracts that obligate us to play as well, so, for sure, that’s definitely why a lot of players are still playing, because otherwise I feel like a lot of players just wouldn’t play at all. […]

I’m just playing because I enjoy it. I enjoy playing the big tournaments. But, also, I’m finding other ways to get motivated. I went to Doha and Dubai this year, which are new tournaments for me, so it’s exciting. It’s something new. And I’m trying not to play a lot, just stay out of the bubble too because it’s very mentally draining. […]”

Without naming names, Shapovalov doesn’t mince his words. You can read his full statement, which has been shared by dozens of outlets:

A few days later, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reaction from the ATP’s headliners. Did the young Canadian say too much or just voice what everyone was already thinking?

Shapovalov and his countrymen Milos Raonic, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil will all be competing in the main draw in Miami this week. 

On the women’s side, Bianca Andreescu is seeded 8th and Leylah Annie Fernandez, who had very little time to celebrate in Monterrey before going back to work, is no.2 in the qualifying competition. Indeed, less than 24 hours after lifting the trophy, she made her debut on Florida court.

And as is often the case, it was too much to ask her to reset her mentality in such a short time. Fernandez only stayed on the field for one hour and 24 minutes, time to be eliminated by the 32-year-old Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu, 137th in the world, 6-4 and 6-2.

You never know when it’s coming!

You know what’s fascinating about tennis? The athletes who manage to find their way up the rankings after spending years just barely bringing in points and ostensibly stagnating. Then, out of nowhere, they surge and wreak havoc among their highest-ranking competitors.

That’s the beauty of the game: the unexpected can happen at any time. And that’s exactly what went down at the ATP 500 Dubai Tennis Championship. 

* Around this time last year, Lloyd Harris (24 years old) was No. 98. Aslan Karatsev (27 years old) was 253rd.

* Harris is 11-5, including the qualifying rounds in Doha and Dubai. He was on a seven-match winning streak before falling in the final.

* In 2021, Karatsev took the entire world by surprise with 15 wins and 2 losses, including the qualifiers in Melbourne, where he made it as far as the semis. He posted eight straight wins in Australia and added another six with his title in Dubai.

* Since March 9, Harris has overpowered Wawrinka, Thiem, Krajinovic, Nishikori and Shapovalov.

* As for Karatsev, he’s subjugated Schwartzman, Auger-Aliassime, Dimitrov, Sinner and Rublev.

And—I’ve saved the best for last—Karatsev has just jumped 226 spots in the rankings in a year! From No. 253 on March 15, 2020, he’s now No. 27.

Aslan Karatsvev wins Dubai
Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

“You never know when it’s coming!”

Those simple words uttered by Aslan Karatsev in a post-match interview perfectly sum up his emergence. Why now? Why in Dubai? Hard to say and impossible to foresee. 

There is some form of equity in tennis. Even when a player doesn’t quite live up to the hype right away, one day, without warning, she could burst onto the scene.

More than ever, getting to the top is about the game—the mental game.

Case in point: Angelique Kerber.

The German lefty was stalled in the Top 10 for three and half years, from May 20, 2012, to October 4, 2015, until she exploded with three Grand Slam semifinal appearances in 2016. She was defeated at Wimbledon but went on to win the US Open. Let’s not forget that she also fought in the Olympic final in Rio. In the end, Angelique wrapped up the season with 63 wins and 18 losses in 81 matches. She was World No. 1 from September 11, 2016, to January 15, 2017!

At the age of…28!

All in the family

A young 20-year-old is currently making a name for himself on the ATP Tour. He’s even gone head-to-head with Félix Auger-Aliassime in Acapulco.

Actually, he’s currently making a first name for himself. Sebastian. Since his last name—Korda—may sound familiar to a few late 20th-century tennis fans.

Indeed, Petr Korda, who was born in what was then known as Czechoslovakia, ranked as high as World No. 2 in 1998, when he earned his one and only Grand Slam title. He married former tennis player Regina Rajchrtová and, together, they had children to whom they’ve passed down some of their athletic genes.

Sebastian Korda and his father Petr posing
Photo: Peter Staples – ATP Tour

Besides Sebastian, the couple have two daughters: Jessica, 28 and Nelly, 22. Jessica and Nelly don’t play tennis, though. They play golf, and they play pretty well. In mid-March, Nelly and Jessica were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the LPGA Tour!

Sebastian has yet to reach the same heights as his sisters on the court, but let’s give him some time. He’s got athletes’ blood in his veins!  

Ending things on a high note

What is it in our maple syrup that makes our tennis stars so talented?

And I mean off the courts.

We know that Félix Auger-Aliassime is an accomplished pianist. Ever since his early days on the tour, he’s been the topic of a number of media stories, including this one filmed in Rotterdam in February2020 with none other than internationally acclaimed conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The two just happen to be from the same hometown.

We also know that Félix’s long-time friend Denis Shapovalov is a hip-hop artist in his spare time. He’s released some of his greatest hits on his YouTube channel.

But what about Carol Zhao? Did you know she also has an ear for music?

She wrote about her passion on social media (reported by Baseline): “I spent many nights by the piano putting to words stuff that wasn’t meant to be deduced to words. I’m so proud of this song and owe it to the wildly talented professionals who helped me bring this project to life over the past six months.”

Talk about having more than one string to their bow. I mean, racquet.

Get in touch with me!

Email: privard@tenniscanada.com
Twitter: @paul6rivard

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