For a professional tennis player is a racquet the Tool of Commerce – the hardware of choice that pays the bills. But this summer, Leylah Fernandez had to endure a painful breakup with her Babolat Pure Aero for a few weeks.
“I was trying to find my way back to the tennis court and my dad said, ‘No. Don’t do that,'” Fernandez said Saturday from Toronto. “I accepted that it was going to take a while – that I just had to hang up my racquets for a while, hide them in the closet and try not to look at them.
“It was one of those moments that I had to master.”
At 19, patience is rarely a virtue. After suffering a degree 3 stress fracture in her right foot at Roland Garros, the US Open finalist has struggled to cope with the emotions that come with a serious injury. As Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin and other colleagues recently found out during lengthy sabbaticals, it’s not easy.
“It’s been a rollercoaster ride since Roland Garros,” said Fernandez. “All my feelings. After a few days I was sad, heartbroken and then I came back home. And then I got more bad news from the doctor that it was a stress fracture and you shouldn’t put weight on it.
“The happiest moment was when I could take my boot off. The doctor said, ‘You can take your boots off, but you won’t be ready for the DC show’. So I was happy for five seconds and sad for the next 20 minutes.”
Fernandez was even happier when her doctor gave her the green light to return to competition a few days ago after being away from the game for more than two months. She is No. 13 in the loaded field at the Rogers-presented National Bank Open and will have a first-round qualifier. The good news? The Montreal native is back home in Canada in front of familiar fans, family and friends.
The bad? She’s in the absurdly talented top quarter of the draw – along with No. 1 Iga Swiatek, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, multi-major winners Victoria Azarenka, Garbiñe Muguruza and Osaka, and the Olympic singles gold medalist , Belinda Bencic.
“I feel great and I’m happy to be back on the pitch,” said Fernandez. “The foot is great. It feels like a brand new foot. We were just trying to accept the situation and I think we did a great job of understanding that this is a bad moment. But at least we’re going through this bad moment as a family and seeing it as some sort of silver lining.”
There were a few weeks of hopping on her left foot, a few more when walking was restricted, and another spell with a protective boot. Fernandez enjoyed the extra time with her family, the chance to watch more television than usual, and—for a first—the satisfaction that comes from reading a good book.
“I used to be stubborn and didn’t want to read books,” she says. “In the last few weeks I’ve read more and enjoyed it – it was definitely surprising.”
She has always been a fan of true detective stories on TV and is now reading the series Girl, Missing.
“I always try to solve the case before the show ends,” Fernandez said. “Most of the time I’m wrong. With a thought process, trying to figure things out just like I would on the tennis court to solve problems.
Fernandez is part of an impressive group of players born after the turn of the century who are changing the sport of tennis. Swiatek, who won 37 straight games earlier this year, was born in 2001. Emma Raducanu, the winner of that US Open championship match, and Fernandez both joined in 2002. Coco Gauff, a finalist at the French Open this year at 18, was born in 2004.
According to Fernandez, their individual achievements help create a collective synergy that they can all capitalize on.
“We all went through that stage where we went through the juniors and lost [WTA matches] and get back up,” said Fernandez. “Following from afar, I saw Coco doing amazing things, Iga doing amazing things, and that definitely motivated me, ‘Okay, I want to do that.’
“So it’s a great dynamic between all of us. Because we see it as an opportunity to improve the sport and motivate other young girls to pursue their own dreams. Not necessarily in tennis, but in other professions. It can be football, technology, whatever you decide.
It wasn’t long ago that Fernandez tried to pursue her dream in tennis. She spent most of her 2019 season playing ITF tournaments across Canada and in places like Waco, Texas, Claremont, California and Bonita Springs, California. But in August, the 16-year-old received a wild card into the main draw in Toronto. It quickly ended in a 6-0, 6-1 loss to Marie Bouzkova.
“Back then I was just amazed when I saw all these professionals,” said Fernandez. “I remember a moment when I saw Venus walking past me. I remember thinking, “OMG, Venus Williams just walked past me.” And then share the place with Simona Halep. I was nervous. I didn’t know how to talk to her during doubles. It was one of those introductions to the Tour.”
Reaching the US Open final a year ago was a turning point for Fernandez and she is keen to match results. It’s easy to forget that she reached the quarter-finals at Roland Garros earlier this year before that foot injury happened. Her patience will be tested again as she attempts to regain her footing among elite players.
“I think I’ll just try to enjoy my time on the pitch and secondly see how I’m feeling physically and mentally,” Fernandez said. “Because I feel great when I train, but a tennis match is a whole new world. Hope everything goes well.
“We can just get better tournament after tournament. Hopefully I’ll be ready for the US Open. But that’s in a long, long time.”