Leylah Fernandez. Photo / Getty
When Leylah Fernandez last appeared at the ASB Classic, she was barely noticed.
Then ranked 209 in the world, her bags were packed two days before the tournament started, after a first-round loss in qualifying
on an empty court, which netted US$800.
Three years later the Canadian is here in different circumstances.
Fernandez is one of the most recognizable players on the WTA tour, thanks to her incredible run to the 2021 US Open final as a teenager, when she beat three top-five players, including defending champion Naomi Osaka, before losing to fellow Classic attendee Emma Raducanu.
That enduring profile counts, as only nine female athletes banked more in prize money and endorsements last year.
Fernandez will be the opening day headline act on Monday, along with American wildcard Venus Williams, and is a favorite for the title, alongside Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Raducanu.
At 20, she has the tennis world at her feet, but it hasn’t been an easy road.
“It’s been super tough,” said Fernandez, reflecting on the last three years. “It’s been tougher more mentally and emotionally because you don’t really know what the future holds for you and you have these big dreams and sometimes you get knocked down and you feel like that’s the end of the journey.”
The ongoing support of her team and family has been vital.
“They were telling me that things are going to be all right,” said Fernandez. “They keep on pushing me and giving me motivation not to quit and keep enjoying the moment. It’s more enjoying the journey than just the end results.”
Fernandez is also tough. The New York episode was career defining, but Fernandez has coped well with the huge expectation since, faring much better than Raducanu in that aspect.
She defended her Monterrey title last year, then reached the quarter-finals at Roland Garros, after making the fourth round at Indian Wells, before a foot injury put her out for two months.
Fernandez understands the ongoing fascination with her US Open heroics but doesn’t want to dwell on it.
“I try not to think about the past and just keep thinking about the present and keep moving forward,” said Fernandez.
The world No 40 says she is a better player now – with improved strength and fitness to go with her renowned speed – and is ready to demonstrate that this year.
“One of my goals is to be more consistent,” said Fernandez. “To get deeper into tournaments and see where I’m at physically, mentally and also tennis-wise.”
One thing that won’t change is her shot-making.
When on song, Fernandez is one of the most exciting players on tour, with her aggressive style.
“That will always be my natural way of playing,” said Fernandez. “I don’t see it as a risk. I see the opportunity and I see that I can go for it and it’s my style of game. The risk for me is not to go for it, not to hit the winner. Because players are bigger, stronger than me and they’re going to get to those balls if I just put the ball back in hoping for a mistake; that’s not going to happen at the higher levels.”
Off the court Fernandez is chatty and polite, taking time to wish the assembled media “Happy holidays and Merry Christmas” during her interview.
Her decision to return to Auckland was based on fond memories of her 2020 visit (despite the early exit) and positive reviews from other players, while Kiwi Erin Routliffe has provided plenty of handy restaurant recommendations.
She is excited about the strong Auckland field – “it’s a great way to see if all the hard work I’ve done is paying off” – ahead of the Australian Open.
Fernandez is Monday’s second center court match, against 15-year-old Czech wildcard Brenda Fruhvirtova, who rose more than 800 ranking places last year and sits at No 132.
Williams faces American qualifier Katie Volynets (world No 114).
Routliffe and American partner Caroline Dolehide also start their doubles campaign on Monday against Fernanda Contreras-Gomez (Mexico) and Catherine Harrison (USA).