TORONTO — Down 5-0 in the first set of her debut at the Rogers Cup, Leylah Annie Fernandez was visited by her coach and father, Jorge Fernandez.
To that point, the 16-year-old wild card from Laval, Que., had shown brief flashes of the talent that had helped her claim the junior French Open title in June and her first pro singles and doubles championships at the Gatineau National Bank Challenger last month.
But the lefty couldn’t find her spots with her groundstrokes, or her serve.
“He just told me to stay calm,” Fernandez recalled Monday, admitting she was a “little bit nervous.”
“That 5-0, it’s just a score. That we can always come back from it. And remember, 0-0, just keep working harder. And once you have your opportunity, just go and grab it.”
The words struck a chord, but it wasn’t to be her big moment — yet.
Fernandez would end up getting swept in the set and winning just a single service game, falling 6-0, 6-1 to qualifier Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic in their first-round match.
Despite the result, the teenage phenom was all smiles after the loss and was already looking ahead.
And she has good reason to.
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Fernandez’s win at Roland Garros was the first by a Canadian at the junior girls’ tournament, and she was the first Canadian to win a junior grand slam since Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon in 2012. This came after being a finalist at the junior Australian Open in January. And on top of the wins at the ITF event in Gatineau, she also made the final of the Granby Challenger at the end of July.
“It’s been bonuses just winning tournaments. We all know how hard it is, and I’m happy that I was able to get those titles,” she said.
“But we’ve got to move forward and get better every day. So I think that’s what is going to be important right now, to just keep going.”
Fernandez is now ranked No. 260 in the world after starting the year at 433.
But she has her mind set on even loftier goals.
“I want to finish top-200 (in the) WTA by the end of the year,” said Fernandez, who boasts a powerful backhand.
“And for the long-term goals, I would love to play grand slams, win as many as I can and be No. 1 in the world.”
But it won’t be easy to get there, nor has it been to this point.
Fernandez’s parents operated on a tight budget and “sacrificed a lot” to fund her — and her younger sister, Bianca’s — tennis career, with her mother, who is Canadian of Filipino descent, taking work in California, while the rest of them stayed in Canada.
“We were separated for, I think, three or four years,” she said.
“It was really hard on us. I had to learn to cook and really be independent around the house, not be dependent on my mom, but I think it was really good for us.”
Fernandez said her father, who is from Ecuador, then sold their home and they moved to Montreal, before eventually uprooting to Florida to be “a family again.”
“We were getting tired of being separated and not (being) together,” she said.
“So when we moved to Florida, it was the best decision that we could make. And just to have my mom with us, it was really good emotionally and mentally. And then just to train there, it was a lot better for my tennis and for the tennis of my younger sister.”
The match was already well in hand, but Fernandez showed this type of moxie in the fifth and six games of the second set.
Encouraged by the support from the crowd, the teen fought her way to a 40-30 breakpoint in the fifth and battled back and forth over a number of deuces in the sixth, before eventually giving in to the 21-year-old Czech Bouzkova.
Regardless of the final score, it’s a moment she won’t soon forget — even if she wasn’t able to seize it.
“Of course, I was a little bit nervous. But just stepping on court and hearing the screams of the Canadians over here — it was amazing,” said Fernandez.
“And too bad I couldn’t play my best, but I did what I could today and I just made some mistakes. …it was a great opportunity and I saw where my level was at, and I know what I need to work on for next time.”