ROLAND GARROS – The road to a major title is a bumpy one, filled detours and disappointments, toll booths at every turn.
But the girls’ singles final Saturday showed that there are many different ways to navigate those potholes.
The champion, 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez of Canada, got there basically on her own, on a shoestring budget.
She got there largely with the help of a stubborn, determined father who has another daughter about to take the same road.
The finalist, Emma Navarro, turned 18 a few weeks ago. And in her final year of junior eligibility, she pulled off her finest result at the international level. In addition to reaching the singles final Saturday, she turned around and completed a doubles semifinal, then won the title with longtime partner Chloe Beck.
The Fernandez family has had to scrape up whatever resources it could to finance the dream. It’s a daily struggle.
Navarro’s father, Ben, bid on buying the NFL’s Carolina Panthers a year ago. He not only owns the WTA Tour’s Volvo Open tournament in Charleston along with the site’s stadium and operations, he also owns a club and tennis academy in nearby Mount Pleasant.
Money talks, but tennis speaks loudest
That privilege can be both a blessing and a curse.
Just because you have every possible advantage to help pave your way, doesn’t mean you’ll get there in a sport where merit is earned with every point played on the court. And the opiniated will chide you for having no excuse not to succeed.
And sometimes the lack of said privilege will make a competitor hungrier, in that “me against the world” kind of way that has fuelled so many champions.
At Fernandez’s age, Navarro – who dominated at the U.S. level in the juniors but had yet to post a major result at the top international level – was playing lower-level (Grade 4) ITF events in the U.S. But she’s coming on now.
Fernandez played sparingly on the junior circuit, which can be as expensive (or more) as the ITF circuit. She was out testing her skills against grown women when she was as young as 14. Sometimes, she even travelled by herself to small events in Europe, because there was no money for her father/coach Jorge to go with her.
But in the end, no matter how you get there, the silver plate is won on the court.
And on that even playing field Saturday, Fernandez triumphed 6-3, 6-2, completing a week in which she won six matches without dropping a set.
Trilingual Fernandez shows poise
At 16, Fernandez, a lefthander with a clever game that compensates for her relatively diminutive stature, is preternaturally poised.
On court, she’s all business, stalking the court in a non-stop whirl of quick, determined steps. If you looked at her face in competitive mode, you’d never guess her age.
Off the court, with her long hair – and her guard – down, she’s a bright, determined and refreshing teenager – but always in control.
She’s been careful not to refer to Tennis Canada’s Hugo di Feo, who was with Fernandez when she won the Grade 1 tournament in Charleroi, Belgium a week ago and is here in Paris, as her “coach”. She has referred to him as someone who is helping her, with his junior experience, to manage the stress and expectations.
In that regard, she’s been well coached by father. The former soccer player has helped her say just the right things.
The Fernandez family moved to Florida several years ago. Among other reasons, they could advantage of the better weather and a better selection of rivals to practice with,
Younger sister Bianca Jolie, 15 in February, has played little in the juniors but has taken her first steps in small pro events this year. Hence the need for di Feo to help, as Jorge was in Portugal with his younger daughter last week.
For awhile, Fernandez commuted back to Montreal as she trained with an excellent coach, Belgian Francisco Sanchez. Tennis Canada helped with the coaching costs for Sanchez. But he couldn’t relocate to Florida.
And so, Fernandez was gone, with her father fully taking over the coaching reins.
Dad’s vision brings a championship
Jorge Fernandez admits that everyone thinks he should calm down.
He’s a tennis father, who’s also a coach. These are factors that rarely play well with tennis federations – not just Tennis Canada – who tend to have a “our way or the highway” mentality when it comes to player development.
But even the USTA has finally come around to realizing that (according to its research), some 60 per cent of junior-aged players have significant parental involvement. And they also have coaches who may have worked with them for a decade.
The young Fernandez said that the relationship with the federation has been improving in recent months. So hopefully that continues.
Currently ranked No. 371 on the WTA Tour with only nine pro events on her 52-week rolling resumé, Fernandez will skip the junior grass-court events. After a break to rest the body and soul, the summer will be spent playing pro events in Canada and, as her father/coach says, figuring out what’s missing to help her transition to the next level and focusing on those priorities.
Navarro down the list in a deeper pool
Fernandez is ranked No. 6 in Canada, despite having half the events on her resumé of most of those ahead of her. And she has already played Fed Cup, making her debut in April against the Czech Republic with some higher-ranked players either injured or unavailable.
With 13 players ranked in the top 100 and 28 in the top 200, the U.S. is a deeper pool. At No. 414 in seven pro events, Navarro is ranked No. 53 in her homeland.
In that regard, she’s further off the radar in the U.S. than Fernandez is in Canada.
But Navarro can get there, too, in her own way.
As varied and different as the routes may be, they all hope to end up in the same place.