Meet Leylah Fernandez: the 19-year-old tennis sensation taking down champions at the 2021 U.S. Open

Fernandez made headlines after she defeated four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, then she saw off Angelique Kerber. Here are five things you need to know about the teenage sensation living a tennis fairy tale in New York.

By Chloe Merrell
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Burgeoning tennis star Leylah Fernandez is doing the one thing in her sport that is guaranteed to court attention.

She’s conquering tennis giants.

The first big name on her list at the 2021 U.S. Open was four-time major winner, and two-time U.S. Open champion, Naomi Osaka.

The 19-year-old Canadian rallied hard from match-point at 6-5 in the second set to flip the tables on the Japanese superstar. She went on to win the set and then the third to take the match: 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-4.

Next up at Flushing Meadows was then Angelique Kerber. Undeterred, the unseeded left-hander – on the eve of her 19th birthday - came once again from a set down to eliminate the 2016 title winner 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2.

Consecutive takedowns? 73rd-ranked Fernandez, it seems, doesn’t deal in flukes.

Next up on the agenda for Fernandez is the number five seed Elina Svitolina. The duo will face off for a place in the semi-finals in New York.

As the teen continues into Slam territory so far unknown to her here’s what you should know about the Canadian teen, and her breakneck rise towards the top.

1- Leylah Fernandez: a biography

Leylah Annie Fernandez was born on September 6, 2002, in Montreal, Canada.

Her father Jorge is a former professional footballer of Ecuadorian descent while her mother Irene was born to parents from the Philippines.

The second-born of three children, Leylah competes under the Canadian flag and speaks English, French and Spanish fluently.

Growing up, Fernandez was a natural sports-type.

She played football, volleyball and often competed in track-and-field. Ultimately though, it was tennis that stole her heart. For hours she would practise hitting her shots against the basement wall.

After being cut from the provincial development program in partnership with Tennis Canada at a young age, Jorge – Fernandez’s father – adopted the role of coach despite never having played tennis himself.

2- A Junior Grand Slam winner on the rise

For those that follow tennis closely, Fernandez may not be the upstart that she first might appear to be.

After turning professional at 17, it wasn’t long before the tennis teen began encountering tournament success.

In 2019, the Canadian not only won her first professional singles title at the Gatineau Challenger but also became a Junior Grand Slam champion at the French Open.

She defeated Emma Navarro in the final 6-3, 6-2 – signalling her potential.

Fernandez then went on to qualify for her maiden Grand Slam at the 2020 Australian Open.

While she was eliminated in the opening round, the following week she defeated the then world number five (and later Tokyo 2020 gold medallist) Belinda Bencic in the qualifying round of the Fed Cup.

Later in the year she also appeared at the French Open and U.S. Open. In Paris she made it to the third round, while in New York, she got as far as the second.

After falling short of first WTA singles title at the Mexican Open back in 2020, Fernandez finally sealed the deal earlier this year in March when she defeated Viktorija Golubic at the Monterrey Open.

Her career high singles ranking is 66 (June 14, 2021); the Canadian entered the 2021 US Open ranked number 73.

3- She may be small, but she is mighty

Standing at just 1.68m tall Fernandez is on the shorter side of most professional tennis players.

Learning to work with her frame to neutralise the strength and power of those much taller than her became a big part of her development.

As the Canadian’s love of tennis grew, she discovered tennis legend Justine Henin and began studying the Swiss player through videos on YouTube.

During her prime, Henin spent 117 weeks as the number one ranked player in the world and scooped up a total of seven Grand Slam titles.

Speaking to CBC on her admiration for Henin, Fernandez said:

“She’s not the biggest player nor the strongest player but she always found a solution playing against bigger players.”

“She had the talent, great hands, slices and drop shots to open up the court where not many could, and that inspired me that I could do it too, and I want to inspire other kids to believe they can do it too.”

Leylah Fernandez in action.
Picture by Julian Finney/Getty Images

4- She studies up on sport’s greatest stars

It is not just Henin that has Fernandez’s respect and attention.

Sporting giants outside the world of tennis are also a source of inspiration for the young talent.

Lionel Messi, Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky, Isaiah Thomas are just a handful of names Fernandez spends time learning from.

The idea behind studying icons who compete outside of her discipline is one that comes from her father. The Canadian explained to ITF:

“My father [and coach Jorge Fernandez] insists I study players from different sports in order to understand that my stature is perfect for my personality and skills.”

“I look into their creativity, uniqueness, use of angles, speed, aggressive defence and fluidity of their movements.”

5- She is an Olympian

The eagle-eye tennis fans may have noticed that Fernandez was part of Team Canada at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

She was selected to represent her country along with Felix Auger-Aliassime.

However, the Canadian did not find much joy on the hard courts of the Ariake Tennis Park. She was eliminated from the competition by Czech Republic’s Barbora Krejcikova.