All in the family: Team Fernandez no longer just a party of two

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PARIS — Can Canadian Leylah Fernandez win Roland Garros?

“I hope so! But that victory is far away. I just want to appreciate this win, and concentrate on my next match,” the 19-year-old from Montreal said after an impressive three-set victory over American Amanda Anisimova in the fourth round on Sunday.

Can Leylah Fernandez win Roland Garros?

“Yes, that’s why we’re here. But to be specific, I think anybody who is allowed to play here is able, is capable of winning it, because they made it here. So we never discount the possibility of anyone being able to win the French Open,” said Jorge Fernandez, her father and coach.

The No. 17 seed — the highest seed left in her half of the draw — will play unseeded Italian Martina Trevisan in the quarterfinals Tuesday.

If she can win that, she would meet one of two Americans: unseeded veteran Sloane Stephens, whom she has defeated three times in three opportunities, or No. 18 seed Coco Gauff in the semifinals.

Fernandez and Gauff, 18 months younger, met in the junior girls singles semifinals of Fernandez’s very first trip to Roland Garros in 2018.

Just 14 then, Gauff won the title.

A year later, Fernandez succeeded her as the girls’ champion.

Both have come a long way in a very short time.

Fernandez’s life now is not only night and day from those junior days, it’s an entirely different universe even from a year ago — before she reached the U.S. Open women’s singles final in September.

Until then, “Team Fernandez” was a party of two, just the player and a coach. When it was feasible, her father-coach would make a trip. Occasionally, her mother Irene would accompany her.

These days, her player’s box is usually packed full of agents, sponsors, family members and friends.

Fernandez signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Canadian company Lululemon, and other deals as well, to add off-court earning power to the $2.6 million US she has already earned on the court.

There is usually a hitting partner on the team. And earlier this year there was a physical trainer as well.

And Jorge Fernandez has been on tour full-time.

“Obviously, the finances are probably the biggest difference, right? In the juniors, we never counted, because there was nothing to count. We knew what the answer was. And now we don't count because there's more than we could ever imagine that we would have through tennis. So we don't make it about money,” he said. “But one aspect of that is that I can definitely plan for a year, without any worries. What we're trying to do now is make good business decisions in order to optimize her tennis — getting the right people, the right programs, the right technology.”

Fernandez has had her ups and downs in the nine months since that final on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

She began the 2022 season slowly after injuring her abductor in a warm-up tournament before the Australian Open. It still wasn’t right when she suffered a shocking first-round loss to Australian qualifier Maddison Inglis.

She returned only in March, when she successfully defended her first career WTA Tour title in Monterrey, Mexico. And she reached the round of 16 at Indian Wells the following week.

Tough losses followed.

Roland Garros is the first time Fernandez has won back-to-back matches since Indian Wells.

For Jorge, though, the big picture is not what his daughter accomplishes at 19. It’s the player she will be at 21.

“That’s the objective. When she’s 21, I’ll ask, ‘Have we done all the right things that we had to do between now and then?’ That will be the real measure of our coaching, our management and our development program,” he said.

There have already been some turnover on Team Fernandez in 2022.

The hitting partner she began the season with is gone, in large part because of visa issues. As a Moroccan, there were difficulties in him being able to stay in the U.S. for long periods of times for training blocks.

Duglas Cordero — the boisterous physical trainer who was the most visible member of Team Fernandez during that U.S. Open final — is also gone.

Cordero, who has been around the game for decades, appears to simply have taken up too much oxygen.

“Great guy, unbelievable experience. But we were just heading in the wrong direction to what we see she needed in tennis. Because we can't forget: we don't do tennis to be great at fitness. It’s the other way around,” Jorge said.

“And also, we’re a little more low-key. It just created a few more wrinkles than it should have. We’re just so focused; we just didn’t want any distractions.”

Team Fernandez has been looking for another coach to replace Romain de Ridder, who travelled with Fernandez for the better part of two years but left after last year’s Wimbledon.

There is another Fernandez daughter with professional tennis aspirations, Bianca. So Jorge now has two players to take care of.

But he isn’t a big proponent of bringing in a new coach during the season; he prefers a new coach come in and do the pre-season so help create the relationship and test out the chemistry.

“We kind of have to be careful, also. There are some coaches who don't want to change. They really don't want to change. They have their way. That’s what makes it complicated. It’s not a common style; a lot of things we do are different,” he said. “The reason why I want to work with someone is because they have a wealth of knowledge and experience that will help us solve new problems. Not, ‘We’ve got to change because that's the way it's done’.

“The game has changed. The athletes have become incredibly gifted in many, many aspects. So we have to also evolve in our coaching mentality … in our coaching ways. And honestly, sometimes I feel people just want to sit in the box and get their name out there."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2022.

Stephanie Myles, The Canadian Press

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