Let’s take a little journey back in time together. Before the US Open final. Before the #28 WTA ranking. Even before the #1 world junior ranking. Before Canada had another young tennis superstar, joining the likes of Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Bianca Andreescu, who could serve as an inspiration for future generations of Canadians to pick up a tennis racket and give the great game of tennis a shot. You see, Leylah Fernandez was far from a sure thing.
During her formative years, between the ages of 11-14, Leylah was coached by Robby Menard in Montreal, Quebec. Robby is the founder, CEO, and head coach of the Academy Menard and Associates, and I reached out to him to get a sense of who Leylah was back then. What made her tick. Was there something about her at that age that made her a little different? It is a fool’s errand to try and identify a potential Grand Slam champion at age 11, but did she stand out? Our conversation meandered through a variety of topics, but there were three common themes that highlighted Leylah as the player she is today.
#1: Start With The Player
When Leylah was 11 and 12 year’s old, she really wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a potential elite professional. She was quite small – she is listed at 5’6” today – and played an unorthodox game style. Where most players on the WTA circuit try to bludgeon their opponent into submission from the baseline, Leylah is a crafty left-hander, hitting drop shots, short angles, coming to the net behind loopy balls. “When we were playing clay court tournaments in Europe, Leylah’s game style was just different. But we knew that she will never outmuscle her opponents, and that we need to base her game style around what she is comfortable doing on the court,” Robby explained to me.
This really resonated with me, and I think is a great lesson for coaches around Canada. There is no one way to play tennis. Sure, there
are certain fundamentals – a split step, proper footwork, high ball toss on the serve – that are not negotiable, but the specifics of how each individual player will collect points should be based on that particular player’s strengths. Not everybody will be a baseliner, covering 75% of the court with his/her forehand. Do you coach a taller player? Teach them how to serve and volley. What makes our game fascinating to watch are when different game styles clash.
“There were a lot of detractors when Leylah was younger. Saying that her game style won’t work at the higher levels. That she needed to develop a more traditional game.” Robby thinks that what kept Leylah committed to her style of play, was her steadfast belief, and of her inner circle, that she was on the right path. Her inner circle was kept purposely small – it was basically Robby and Leylah’s father – and they kept their long term vision intact. It is easy to do that when you’re making the Canadian national team, winning junior Grand Slams, and progressing into the elite ranks of the sport. But it is important to maintain that same belief when the road is bumpy, setbacks come, and doubt can creep into the mind of the player.
One other way in which belief is a big part of Leylah’s game is that she always prepared to win every match she played. “That was her dad’s consistent message. You can compete with everyone. You can beat anyone on the other side of the net.” A lot of players hope they can win, few expect to win. That’s why the stage was not too big for Leylah in New York. Kerber? Osaka? Svitolina? Sabalenka? Sure, I respect them as players. But I trust my game style and I will bring it. If I execute, it will be enough.
#3: Always Improving
To finish off our conversation, I asked Robby what he thinks the challenges for Leylah will be going forward. Being ranked inside the Top 30 at age 19 is no small feat, but the bar has just been raised. The expectations of a Grand Slam title are real, and a Top 10 ranking is surely a goal.
“Leylah has always been hungry to improve. She needs to develop her first serve into a consistent weapon. Introduce more variability with placement, spin, and velocities.” A quick glance at the statistics from the final confirms Robby’s observation: Leylah won just 56% of her first serve points, while Emma Raducanu won 67%.
We’re coming back again to who Leylah is as a player. Not every first serve needs to be a 120mph bomb; a slice into the body, surprising kick serve to the forehand, keeping your opponent off-balance. All to set up her favorite short angles and drop shots.
Which leads me to Robby’s second point: “And she just needs to stay true to who she is. As the opponents become more familiar with her game, the scouting reports will come out, and she won’t surprise her opponents anymore. There will be thoughts of changing her game. Sure, make some adjustments, keep evolving. But stay true to yourself on the tennis court, keep the foundation solid.”
Being authentic on and off the court is part of Leylah’s charm and her appeal to tennis fans all over the world. Will she ever win a Grand Slam? Don’t know. But yours truly just became a fan over the past two weeks. Tennis needs more authentic trailblazers like Leylah Fernandez.
By Michal Kokta, Tennis Editor & High Performance Coach with ACE Tennis