For many tennis fans, watching Leylah Annie Fernandez battle it out on the acrylic hard courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was among the exciting highlights of this year’s US Open tennis championship.
The Pinay-Canadian may have failed to bring home the sterling silver trophy but she took down some of the biggest names in women’s tennis—multiple Grand Slam Champions Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, former world No. 1 Elina Svitolina, and world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. Nineteen year-old Leylah beat those four in a row.
The Gen Z crowd adore the positive energy Leylah brings to the court, says this report from the Toronto Star. “She’s confident but not cocky. Strong but not dominating. We can all use something uplifting in our lives and watching an extraordinary player make a name for herself is not only impressive but admirable.” Also part of the young lady’s charm is her beautiful, infectious smile.
Seasoned sports anchor Dyan Castillejo, herself a tennis player albeit in her younger years, was able to catch Leylah’s recent matches in New York. Dyan says she has no doubt the teenage phenom will rocket up. In a tweet, Dyan said Leylah displayed “rock solid strokes and incredible maturity” on the court—“like she was made to win Grand Slams.”
The ABS-CBN reporter said the young lady’s got “composure, grit, determination, skill, power, and court coverage.” Dyan also expressed her amazement at how comfortable Leylah played on such a big stage, against Gland Slam champions and top 10 players. “[She doesn’t show any nerves, doesn’t show any pressure,” Dyan told ANCX. “She just goes out there, hits her shots, fights toe to toe, and smiles at the end of her win. So refreshing. Super love her.”
Former professional tennis player and American tennis coach Brad Gilbert admires Leylah’s resilience and problem-solving skills. “She hits the right shots in the third set and keeps composure under pressure,” he told ESPN, noting the teen’s performance during her match with Japanese athlete Naomi Osaka.
Meanwhile, pro tennis player-turned-broadcaster Pam Shriver also marveled at the teen’s mental toughness. “It’s unusual to have four straight challenging, three-set matches like she has, so deep into a major,” she shared via ESPN. “It means, yes, you are playing great tennis, but it also means you are handling the mental part of your game, as well.”
If you ask Australian tennis coach, commentator, and former player Rennae Stubbs, it’s Leylah’s fighting spirit that’s been truly spectacular. “She has refused to give up against some of the biggest names in women's tennis. Her willingness to continue to go for her shots in those moments has been impressive—even fearless.”
The 19-year old’s former coach Dave Rineberg tells USA Today he sees the young Serena Williams in Leylah. He’s quite certain his former ward would take that same trajectory as Williams. “[Leylah’s] kind of got that same aura going right now. Serena didn’t know what she was doing, she was just swinging away and chasing balls,” he say, recalling the American athlete’s performance in the 1999 US Open when she beat Martina Hingis. “It looks like every ball that comes over the net right now, Leylah can hit it however she wants and it’s going to go in. Serena back then, she didn’t have the size to blow people off the court, and she did it all with speed and taking the ball early.” Both are not so tall compared to most professional tennis players—Serena stands 175 cm while Leyla’s height is 168 cm.
What possibly makes up for Leyla’s “not-so-tall” disadvantage is taking on the mindset of sporting giants. She looks up to footballer Lionel Messi, ice hockey athletes Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretzky, and basketball player Isaiah Thomas. The idea to study players outside of her discipline came from her father, Jorge Fernandez, a former soccer player. An Ecuadorian, Jorge didn’t know anything about tennis until his daughter showed interest in the sport as a schoolgirl. Leylah’s mother, Irene Exevea, is a Filipina who was born in Toronto, Canada.
“My father [and coach] insists I study players from different sports in order to understand that my stature is perfect for my personality and skills,” she told International Tennis Federation. “I look into their creativity, uniqueness, use of angles, speed, aggressive defense and fluidity of their movements.”
Earvin Magic Johnson may not be one of the sports giants Leylah mentions she looks up to but it looks like even the basketball legend has caught up on the Leylah fever. “If you haven’t seen the most exciting player at the US Open, 19-year old Leylah Fernandez, you’re truly missing out!! She just beat her 3rd ranked opponent and is on fire,” the basketball legend tweeted recently. “She’s captivating the world!”