Half-Pinay conquers Roland Garros

MANILA, Philippines — A half-Filipina, half-Ecuadorian teenager from Canada didn’t just win the French Open junior girls championship but also captivated the audience with her amazing competitive spirit on the Roland Garros clay courts in Paris last weekend.

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Leylah Annie Fernandez, whose mother’s parents are Filipino, took out six straight opponents without surrendering a single set in becoming the first Canadian to capture a Grand Slam juniors title since Felix Auger-Aliassime in the 2016 US Open and the first Canadian female to bag a Grand Slam juniors crown since Eugenie Bouchard in the 2012 Wimbledon.

Fernandez, 16, brought down one contender after another in a display of impeccable tennis. In succession, she beat Russia’s Mariia Tkacheva, 7-5, 6-3, Spain’s Marta Custic, 6-0, 6-3, Korea’s Sohyun Park, 6-2, 6-0, France’s Elsa Jacquemot, 6-0, 6-0, Colombia’s Maria Osorio Serrano, 6-2, 6-4, and the US’ Emma Navarro, 6-3, 6-2. Her semifinal victory over Serrano was particularly sweet because it avenged a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 loss to the Colombian in the US Open juniors quarterfinals last year.

A lefthander, Fernandez made it to the French Open juniors semifinals last year but bowed to the US’ Cori Gauff, 6-4, 6-3. Fernandez said it has been her dream to win at Garros since watching Justine Henin and Rafael Nadal in the 2007 French Open on TV when she was barely five. Her Ecuadorian father and full-time coach Jorge, a former soccer player, said she never lost sight of her goal.

“Early on, a lot of people said she was too small to play clay,” said Fernandez’ father. “She didn’t have big legs. Didn’t have a big back. The good news is we didn’t listen to it and I encouraged her to not give up on her dream. She always wanted to win the French Open. The biggest difference this year from last year is her mental capacity to handle the ups and downs, the corrections necessary in her game in the moment. Her resiliency under pressure is to be admired.”

Team Canada vice president for elite athlete development and high performance coach Louis Borfiga said Fernandez’ will power is her greatest shot. Writer Stephanie Myles said her game is “funky” and “unique” with her strokes far from traditional and her will and determination far from the norm.

Growing up, Fernandez never got financial assistance from the Canadian federation and relied on her parents’ support until early this year when she finally got some aid. For a while, she was coached by Belgian Francisco Sanchez. Last year, her father moved her to Deerfield Beach, Florida, to focus on training. Younger sister Bianca Jolie, 15, is also a promising tennis player.

“I’m a bit of a mix,” said Fernandez who speaks English, Spanish and French. “I was born in Montreal. I’m Canadian. My father is from Ecuador and my mother is from Toronto but her parents are Filipinos. I’m happy to be Ecuadorian and Filipino. Roland Garros is very special for me because it was the first Grand Slam I watched on TV.” Asked what is her main strength, Fernandez said, “it’s fighting spirit … I don’t let go, all points are important to me from the first to the last … even though I’m losing, I’m never going to let go.”

Fernandez plans to skip the Wimbledon juniors and hone her skills playing in Canadian tournaments before trying her luck in the US Open juniors. “I hope she can remain humble and keep working really hard,” said her father. “We hope we’re going to get more believers. Yes, she’s small. But I hope there’s more belief. She needs it, she deserves it and she’s earned it. There’s no height, there’s no weight. It’s an instinct thing. She’s going to get stronger, she’s going to get faster, she’s going to get smarter. And we’re going to help her develop her game. We hope her game will be unique enough to make a difference in the pros. She has all the other attributes, now it’s about adding a little more essence to it.”

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