Leylah Fernandez interview

Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images

Leylah Fernandez is chasing her dream

An interview with the Montreal-born and -raised tennis player about inspiration, goals, local faves, famous fans and more.

Since the heyday of Eugenie Bouchard nearly a decade ago, Montreal has been starved for women’s tennis stars. From the ROC, the likes of Milos Raonic, Vasek Pospisil, Denis Shapovalov and Bianca Andreescu gave Canadians more players to cheer for, but it wasn’t until Felix Auger Aliassime emerged on the scene that Montrealers had a homegrown tennis hero again.

And then came Leylah Fernandez. 

Having already won her first title at the Monterrey Open in March 2021, Fernandez had a star-making ascension at the U.S. Open that year, reaching the final but ultimately falling to Emma Raducanu. Since then she’s played at the Olympics in Tokyo, all the Grand Slam tournaments and the vast majority of stops on the WTA tour, becoming a local ambassador for the tennis world — alongside Auger Aliassime — and an inspiration to the next generation of girls pursuing the sport in this city.

Born and raised in Montreal, the now-20-year-old Fernandez grew up with a range of tennis and other sports heroes, chief among them the titans of contemporary tennis Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Her father and coach Jorge Fernandez, who imparts valuable expertise and unique training exercises as a former soccer player, also taught his daughter about legends from other sports.

“I didn’t know who Wayne Gretzky was but my dad showed me a lot of videos growing up, analyzing how he played the game, and it was so beautiful to watch. That’s what I want to do with my tennis, to be able to move and hit the ball with so much grace and elegance that it makes it look easy when it’s extremely hard.”

Leylah Fernandez

Fernandez says her father’s most important lesson, one he learned from his soccer years, is to hone the mental side of being a pro athlete.

“You need to have so much mental fortitude and mental toughness in sports because you’re experiencing such stressful and physically demanding situations in a very short amount of time. He always says, ‘If the mind allows, the body follows.’ If I can push through the fatigue, push through the soreness, I feel amazing. I feel happy that I was able to fight through what I was feeling inside emotionally and just accomplish what I needed to accomplish.”

Fernandez tells me she has not watched King Richard — the film about Serena and Venus Williams and their father/coach Richard — and likely won’t do so for many years in case it hits too close to home (Leylah’s 19-year-old sister Bianca is also a tennis player). She says she has nothing but respect for the Williams sisters, but she went a different way in terms of her own female tennis hero.

“There’s one female tennis player that I absolutely love,” she says, “Justine Henin. At the time, she wasn’t playing, she was retired, but there was a coach who mentioned to my dad and me that I have a very similar style. I watched her play on YouTube, and she was so inspiring. She was definitely my hero and she also inspired my dad and my training, to keep going that way.”

Among Fernandez’s other sports heroes are Brooklyn Nets Coach Steve Nash and Lindsey Vonn, both of whom supported her during the 2021 U.S. Open run. And among her fans from the world of culture is one of the biggest names in Broadway.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda sent me a couple of messages, and when I got them I think I fan-girled because he’s so inspiring. The way he sings and performs, it’s just amazing to see and hopefully I can witness it live in person at one of his shows. It would truly be a dream come true.”

Fernandez and her family have been living in Florida for nearly six years, and while she rarely has the opportunity to visit Montreal (“which breaks my heart because it’s one of my favourite cities”), her memories of growing up amid the city’s cultural touchstones continue to provide inspiration.

“The Jazz Festival was probably my favourite because I would go with my mom and my sister, it was like a girls’ afternoon. I wasn’t a big fan of jazz but it was so cool and I was always in awe of how they’re able to get up there, with nerves and everything, and remember all the notes. They just played their hearts out, and it fascinated me.”

Leylah Fernandez cult mtl august 2023 canadian open national bank
Leylah Fernandez on the cover of Cult MTL, Aug. 2023

When she does make it back to Montreal, as she will this week for the National Bank Open tennis tournament (aka the Rogers Cup), she has two culinary go-tos.

“Every single time I go back to Montreal, the first thing I want is a poutine — anywhere, any restaurant where I can get a poutine, that’s where I’m gonna go and that’s what I’m gonna order. Around the world, you don’t get that, and even if they do have it — like in Paris, they have one restaurant where they make poutine — it’s never as great as it is in Montreal.

“I haven’t had this in a long time but BeaverTails were always my favourite dessert to get after a long training day,” she adds. “I would also always ask for a BeaverTail with Nutella and strawberries and brown sugar and cinnamon — that’s my order.”

Fernandez has faced her share of professional slumps, being eliminated in first rounds of WTA tournaments and the occasional Grand Slam, but she’s also seen peaks in the past year. In June, she got to the doubles final at the French Open alongside Taylor Townsend. But whenever she’s slipping in a match or a tournament, her mind goes to that sudden near-win at the U.S. Open, which ended for her not just with a loss but with a touching speech about New York City and resilience that helped win the hearts of fans.

“It was such an important moment for me, not because of the result or what I did in the tournament but because of what it meant to me. As a little girl growing up, I had this big dream and I’ve encountered so many obstacles and people who said, ‘You’re not gonna make it,’ ‘It’s not going to happen,’ and when it happened, I was super happy and excited. And right now, when I’m going through tough moments, which has been happening, I try to think about those moments and say, ‘Okay, I’ve achieved this, so I can do it again.’ I want to keep going because I want to show, not only all the people who have doubted me that yes, I can do it, but also to prove this little girl’s dream is there, it’s still alive, it’s still important. It keeps me motivated.” ■

The National Bank Open is happening at Stade IGA (285 Gary-Carter) from Aug. 5–13.

This article was originally published in the Aug. 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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