Fernandez Discovers There’s More To Tennis Than Wins And Losses

Leylah Fernandez (photo: Pete Staples/USTA)

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, September 12, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

One of the toughest things for any tennis player who has just lost a major final is to give a concession speech during the trophy ceremony. Yet, Canada’s Leylah Fernandez provided possibly one of the most memorable moments of Saturday’s US Open women’s singles final when she asked for the microphone following her interview with ESPN‘s Mary Joe Fernandez (no relation) to speak from her heart. The 19-year-old fiercely competitive Canadian gave one of the most graceful tributes to New York on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was delivered with empathy, perspective and class.

It came at the end of what had been an incredibly celebratory evening before nearly 24,000 fans that packed Arthur Ashe Stadium. After Fernandez and Great Britain’s Emma Raducanu embraced at the net following the conclusion of their historic final, won by the 18-year-old Raducanu, 6-4, 6-3, one couldn’t help but think that they represented all that is good about tennis and what the future of the women’s game that is full of youthful exuberance and talent may look like.

Fernandez and Raducanu, both mature beyond their years, were the first teenagers to meet in a US Open final since Serena Williams won the first of her 23 major titles at age 17 in 1999, over Martina Hingis, 18. Both players exuded confidence, they were creative in their shot-making abilities and each showed determination during the one-hour and 51-minute final, and throughout the entirety of the New York fortnight, too. From the high quality of tennis that was on display and witnessed by a worldwide TV audience – and the feeling of joy that it elicited – through to the extraordinary speech that Fernandez gave with her eyes welling during the trophy ceremony, it was a moment that goes beyond compare.

Fernandez, a Montreal native whose father-coach Jorge is from Ecuador and mother Irene is Filipino-Canadian, comes from a close-knit family that includes an older sister, Jodeci, and a younger sister, Bianca. She’s trilingual and speaks fluently in English, French and Spanish. Along with her team, everyone believes in her and in her potential. And so it was, as Fernandez spoke on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which occurred nearly a year before she was born, she paid tribute to New York.

“I know this day was especially hard for New Yorkers and everyone around the United States,” she said. “I just hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.”

Fernandez may have lost the final to Raducanu, but in defeat she won over the hearts of the New York fans.

During her news conference afterward, Fernandez was asked what made her decide to say what she did after asking for the microphone back. She replied:

“When I woke up this morning, I looked at the date. I remembered watching just movies about what happened, then asking my parents, like, what exactly happened in that day. You know what, I was just so in shock when they told me. They told me what they were doing when they saw the news.

“Obviously I don’t know much about what really happened, but with the few information that I do have, I know that New York has suffered a lot the past years when it did happen. I just wanted to let them know that they’re so strong, they’re so resilient. They’re just incredible.

“Just having them here happy, lively, just going back to the way they were, having my back during these tough moments, has made me stronger and has made me believe in myself a lot more.”

During Fernandez’s nearly-10-minute news conference, she answered questions about the just-completed final against Raducanu, what she learned from the experience, and what the future going forward looks like for her. While there was a sense of disappointment that came from having lost her first major final, Fernandez remained upbeat.

“I am still disappointed. I think this loss, I’m going to carry it for a very long time,” she said. “I think it will motivate me to do better in training, better for the next opportunity I get.

“But, no, I’m very happy with myself, with the way I competed, and the play I played, the way I acted on court the past two weeks. I’ve improved a lot not only tennis-wise but emotionally and mentally.

“I’m happy. Next year hopefully it will be just as good.”

When she was asked what she had learned about herself, Fernandez said:

“There’s one thing that really surprised me was that the more that I’m more outgoing on court and that I try to get the crowd involved, the more I’m playing well. Usually when I was younger, I’d try to be as calm as possible, just like [Roger] Federer.

“I’m glad that I’ve discovered that of myself, that I play a lot better when I’m more – not motivated, but when I’m more outgoing and when I’m using the crowd to my advantage.”

On lessons learned, Fernandez replied:

“I think the most important lesson that I’ve learned is how to recuperate after so many great wins in a row. After every win I was so happy, so excited. I just wanted to go back on court and play again.

“I was very lucky to have a great team behind me telling me to calm down, enjoy this win now tonight, then the very next day let’s get back to work. I’m glad that I had that opportunity to learn, to actually know how to organize myself in these moments.”

On Emma Raducanu as an opponent, Fernandez said:

“Well, Emma is a very good player. She’s been playing incredibly these last few months with a lot of confidence. I unfortunately today did one too many mistakes. I think Emma noticed it and she just took advantage of it.

“She did good. Hopefully we’ll have many more tournaments together and many more finals.”

When Fernandez was asked in what ways her US Open experience might change her life, she said she didn’t think it would change her life that much.

“Like I said, I’m very lucky to have a great support team and a great family to keep me grounded,” she said. “Like I said, with these wins and this loss today, it definitely stings, but it will just make me want to work harder and stronger, just come back to every tournament with the same hunger that I came into this tournament.”

Finally, Fernandez was asked if there was one moment to reflect upon that would leave her with a positive feeling, she smiled. Then, she gave a thoughtful response that put her whole two-week New York experience into some perspective.

“I think it’s just seeing my whole box there enjoying their time, enjoying their time in Arthur Ashe, outside the court, too,” she said. “I love seeing them smile. I love my time here with the crowd, but seeing my family and my coach, my fitness coach, my agents, all there smiling, having fun, means a lot more to me than any victory. …

“I’m proud of myself and happy with the way I fought.”