Leylah Fernandez: A fresh prodigy in women’s tennis

‘So happy that everyone in the Philippines is cheering for me.’ Photos by Troi Santos

By D. De La Rosa

The cheers for  Leylah Annie Fernandez swept the Arthur Ashe Stadium of the U.S. Open tennis tournament near the end of the summer in New York City.

It paid tribute to a left-handed, 5-foot 6-inch, 19-year-old phenom who had defeated three top-5 women’s tennis players on her way to the finals.

Leylah played with the abandon of a player finally enjoying her first taste of success in grand slam tennis. While everyone knows about her Ecuadorian father Jorge, she is also of Filipino descent through her mother, Irene Exevea.

Her smile could light up a room and she did so in one of her press briefings at the U.S. Open.

“I am so, so happy that everyone in the Philippines is cheering for me,” she said when told by a reporter her matches were being avidly followed in the country.

Leylah, who was born in Montreal but resides full-time in Boynton Beach, Florida, is refreshing in her candor. She did not duck a question about anti-Asian hate in the United States, answering it head-on in her interview with Sportsnet. “It is unfortunate we are still going through all this,” she said.

Like any person with South American roots, she is an avid soccer fan. Her two favorite teams are Real Madrid and Manchester City in the Premier League.

She speaks glowingly of her ties with her parents through the multi-cultural household she came from: Ecuador-South American, Filipino, and the French dominated city of Montreal.

“The relationship is like any mother-daughter relationship,” she said when asked about her interaction with her mom.

She hopes to be back in the U.S. Open ‘this time with the right trophy.’

Irene is a primary booster of Leylah, pumping up her confidence when she is feeling down and always standing by her side.

Her tennis game is really one of footwork, speed and leverage. She uses the footwork to get into position, swivels in her hips to generate leverage and power and gets to balls that other players would not normally get to.

Her run of success began in March at the Monterrey Open, winning her first four matches to reach the final, where she beat Viktorija Golubic to grab the first Women’s Tennis Association title of her career. At age 18, she was the youngest player in the main draw, and won without dropping a set.

In the U.S. Open, she defeated third seed and defending champion, Naomi Osaka, in three sets in the third round, outlasted former world No. 1 and three-time major champion Angelique Kerber in the fourth round in another three set-battle, and then ousted fifth seed Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals, also in three sets, to reach her first major tennis tournament semifinal a day after her 19th birthday.

She then defeated Aryna Sabalenka, the second seed, to reach her first major final. It was the third time in the Open Era that a woman defeated three of the top five seeds at the U.S. Open.

The whole run likely tired her out and she lost to fellow teen British Emma Raducanu in the final in straight sets.

“I hope to be back here in the (U.S. Open) finals and this time with the right trophy,” Leylah said after her loss.  

She does not speak a word of Filipino which she found to be “very complicated” but is keen about learning more about her heritage from her mother’s side of the family. Her mother’s family is from the Ilocos. She told a Filipino sports writer she didn’t know much about Philippine culture, but that her ‘lolo’ (grandfather) “cooks amazing Filipino dishes.”

© The FilAm 2021

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