With the Canadian tennis scene reaching new highs last year, it was easy to forget that one of the sport’s top young prospects made remarkable strides and appears primed for big things of her own.
Leylah Annie Fernandez of Laval, Que., won the French Open junior girls’ title last summer and quietly posted strong results on the Challenger circuit. Now 17, she appears ready to clear more hurdles in her first full professional season.
Fernandez will make her first Grand Slam appearance as a pro this week at the Australian Open. She’s tabbed to play her first-round qualifying match against Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig on Wednesday.
“Our main goal was to be here in Australia, not for the juniors but for the women’s tour — the qualifiers,” Fernandez said. “When we got the news, we trained even harder and prepared my game for the WTA Tour.”
Bianca Andreescu’s breakout season was the talk of the Canadian sports world last year. Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov made strides on the men’s tour and the national Davis Cup team made it all the way to the final.
Fernandez, meanwhile, won her first pro tournament at the ITF Gatineau Challenger in July. She also went deep in some other lower-level events through the summer and fall.
Her ranking surged over 200 positions, leapfrogging players like Eugenie Bouchard, Rebecca Marino, Katherine Sebov and Francoise Abanda to eventually become the Canadian No. 2.
The only Canadian above the 206th-ranked Fernandez is Andreescu at No. 6. The reigning US Open champion from Mississauga, Ont., is skipping the Australian Open due to a knee injury.
“There’s so much more that I can achieve if I put my mind to it,” Fernandez said from Melbourne. “I was working hard since the very beginning and 2019 showed the results, [I’m] very happy.”
At this stage of her blossoming career, one of the main goals is to get reps against WTA Tour players and gain more of a feel for what’s to come.
Don’t necessarily expect another exponential rankings jump.
“We’re being careful,” said Jorge Fernandez, her father and primary coach. “We don’t want to go too fast, too soon.”
Fernandez said she wants to keep developing her overall skill set and is aiming to crack the top 100 this season.
“I think I’ve always known that I was ready [for the pros] but of course there’s some steps and levels that I have to go through, which I was fine with,” she said. “It’s a matter of let’s say proving [to] yourself that yes, you can play with some top players.
“So every time that I would step on the court, I just want to play and do what I can to reach the next level.”
Fernandez will get a stiff test out of the gate at Melbourne Park. Tig is the seventh seed in the qualifying draw and ranked 113th in the world.
The Canadian teenager also had a tough draw in her opening match of the year. She dropped a 7-5 7-6 (3) decision to 95th-ranked Paula Badosa of Spain in the first round of qualifying in Auckland.
Bouchard, from Westmount, Que., was scheduled to play Xiaodi You of China on Monday.
In men’s qualifying play on Wednesday, third seed Brayden Schnur of Pickering, Ont., was to meet Sebastian Ofner of Austria and Peter Polansky of Thornhill, Ont., was to face Alexandre Muller of France. Toronto’s Steven Diez was to open against Darian King of Barbados.
Main draw action at the first Grand Slam of the season begins Jan. 20 and continues through Feb. 2.
Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, Ont., Montreal’s Auger-Aliassime, Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., and Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil have direct entries into the main draw.
Fernandez is working with coach Romain Deridder while she’s in Australia. Her father, who’s based in Boynton Beach, Fla., said mental toughness will be key in the early going this season.
“It’s like anybody else. When they go and do something for the first time, there’s an excitement and sometimes that takes you away from your game,” he said from Florida. “It takes you away from what you’re used to doing and then it becomes a little bit more complicated than what it is.
“In the juniors, it’s more forgiving. In the pros, the WTA-level players, it’s less forgiving. So I’m pretty confident.”
A left-hander, Fernandez has a variety of weapons on the court. She’s not afraid to use her power from the baseline and likes to mix in different looks to keep opponents guessing.
She has shown that she’s quite comfortable in Melbourne, having reached the final of the junior tournament there last year.
Fernandez ramped up her workouts and training in recent weeks to prepare for this year’s event while trying to improve her accuracy, strength and speed on court.
“We did do a little bit more fitness to get myself ready for the WTA Tour, I’m not playing against juniors anymore,” she said. “It’s with women who are bigger and stronger. So I have to be ready for that.”