ROLAND GARROS – There are parents who have never really played a sport who (with a lot of unheralded – and often uncompensated – help) have created champions.
The king of them all is Richard Williams. With honorary mention to Yuri Sharapov.
There are some who are tennis coaches by trade. Tessa Shapovalova, the mother of Canadian Denis, is a recent example.
And then there are fathers who create stars whose background is in another sport, often soccer (Stefano Capriati, Piotr Wozniacki).
Add Jorge Fernandez to that mix, as the father/coach of newly-minted French Open junior girls’ champion Leylah Annie Fernandez. He’s not at that level of tennis father/coach yet. But he’s working on it.
Not only that, Fernandez has another daughter, 15-year-old Bianca Jolie, just starting to play the pros.
Tennis fathers are a quixotic, determined, hard-headed, sometimes misunderstood breed.
Sometimes they are crazy and toxic (Damir Dokic, Jim Pierce, Marinko Lučić and too many more to mention).
Most often, they have a vision that strays from the formulaic.
And that rarely meshes well with the tennis federations who have their blueprints, their set ways of doing things in an individual sport where the “typical” way isn’t always the winning way.
A father/coach who goes his own way
Fernandez is one of those father/coaches. He knows what he wants, and believes he knows best. On the other side, the Canadian tennis federation knows what it wants, and believes it knows best.
So in the overall absence of the two being able to find some sort of common ground, to the benefit of the player, the two sides are separate. It’s not that they’re working at cross-purposes; they’re just not often working together.
The Fernandezs now live in Florida. Tennis Canada’s decision makers are mostly in Toronto (and in Montreal).
And yet, without that teamwork, Fernandez has become the French Open junior girls’ champion.
Her game is funky, fairly unique for the juniors. Her strokes are far from textbook. But her will and determination are also far from the norm.
Whether the idiosyncrasies of Fernandez’s game will translate well to the pros is still to be determined. But would she have gotten this far had a more institutionalized way of doing things smoothed out the odder edges?
It’s unlikely. Standardizing a player to be just like so many others strips a player in an individual sport of the essence of who they are. If they can’t be who they are, the imposter typically won’t get as far.
You could make the same argument for Shapovalov, who also chose to make his own way outside the institutional confines, won junior Wimbledon and made it to the top 20 on the ATP barely out of his teens.
Huge shout out to Leylah Annie Fernandez for winning the French. Love her story: working all with her dad in Florida for years. Cant wait to see more of her in the future. #MoreThan1Way #GoCanada pic.twitter.com/Q19aNHhPlw
— Denis Shapovalov (@denis_shapo) June 8, 2019
Proud father, after the victory
It was notable to this observer that after Fernandez won her semi-final match against Maria Camila Osorio Serrano (who defeated her at the US Open), the father/coach had a … bro handshake and a fist pump for his daughter.
And after that, a lot of immediate feedback about the process.
As if it were a routine win, but not the ultimate goal.
After the title match? Big, jubilant, loving hugs and kisses all around.
We spoke to Jorge Fernandez after that win.
Here’s what he had to say.
“I’ve been hearing about this since she was five or six. She’s been taking about Justine Henin when she saw her on TV, the French Open. Oh, and this other little player – you may know him – Rafael Nadal. He’s been an inspiration for her, especially on clay. And it’s been quite a journey for her in the clay tournaments.
Early on a lot of people says she was too small to play clay. She didn’t have big legs. Didn’t have a big back. The good news is that 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. Out of all the tournaments, this is the No. 1 she wanted to get done.
We never talked about it, because we didn’t want to put any undue pressure. So from a dad’s perspective, what can I say, I’m in awe. I’m in awe.”
Improvements from last year
“From a coaching perspective the biggest difference this year from last year is her mental capacity to really handle the ups and downs, the corrections necessary in her game in the moment. Even though she breezed through it, there were difficult moments in every match (in Paris). Moments where she had to actually had to keep her feet on the ground. Instead of just playing tennis, she played the mental game. And that was the difference; it got her out of of some trouble. And after that, her talent speaks for itself.
At some point (during the final), I was trying to be patient – which is not my typical thing. At one point I got tired. I forget what I said. Probably, ‘C’mon Leylah, let’s go!’ She turned around and basically said, ‘Calm down. I got this.’
We prepare for situations like that. We prepare for those moments that we know will come. And once again, she proved that she’s not only talented, not only hard working, not only a fighter, but extremely resilient in her mental capacity. People who have played against her, coached her, seen her play, they will echo that. Her resiliency under pressure is to be admired.”
“She’s here to stay”
“I hope it won’t change our lives. I hope that she can remain humble and keep working really hard. From the outside perspective, I hope people are noticing that she’s here to stay. I’m not saying she doesn’t have a lot of work to do to get to the WTA level. And we’re going to going to dedicate ourselves to that from this moment on.
We just hope we’re going to get more believers. Yes, she’s small. We don’t need to hear that. We know. But I hope it’s going to change, that there’s more belief, because she needs it. I think she deserves it. And I think she’s earned it.
Now we go back to zero tomorrow and start planning what we’re going to do. Two very successful weeks, a lot of matches. We’re going to tread on being wise and taking care of her body, her emotional state, her mindset. She deserves a few days off. Maybe we’ll see Paris a little bit.”
No Wimbledon in 2019
“It’s a scheduling thing. A commitment to play all the Canadian Challengers, Again, I’m very big believer in taking care of the body. I didn’t think it wise, having very little break one tournament to the next. Grass is not easy. It’s very hard on the body. You can go in there, you win a round, lose the second round, and it attacks your confidence. Maybe we’ll do it next year. She still has a year (in juniors).
The US Open (juniors) is a very big possibility. But a lot of the decisions will be made based on how she does in the Challengers. How well does she transition? If we find she’s being blown away, maybe she’s just not ready. So there’s no set road right now.
The Challengers will pinpoint what it is we have to work on. We’ll then take two of those, say, 10 priorities, work on them really hard in the next six months and see what it does.
I always told her, the end of the day, it’s your call on the court. Nobody’s feeling what you’re feeling. Nobody’s seeing what you’re seeing. It’s an instinct that comes out. Some people have it, some people just cannot get 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 that her game will be unique enough to make a difference in the professionals. I think she has all the other attributes. Now it’s about adding a little more essence to it.”