“I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been over the last 20 years,” Leylah Fernandez said after losing in the US Open final on Saturday.
As the tournament’s host city marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it was an emotional moment.
The 19-year-old Canadian entered the competition ranked 73rd in the world and advanced to the final against Emma Raducanu after defeating several major opponents.
Commentators were astounded by her blazing left-handed serves.
Her unlikely rise began in Montreal, where she was born to an Ecuadorian footballer father and a mother from the Philippines.
The petite 5-foot-6 (168cm) player defeated superstar Naomi Osaka earlier in the tournament before defeating 17th-ranked Angelique Kerber and fifth-ranked Elina Svitolina.
When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted his support for Fernandez, who is now a household name in Canada, he spoke for many delighted Canadians: “A Canadian is in the US Open final!”
Steve Nash, the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets NBA basketball team, was also present to watch her play during a match during the week.
Nash’s presence, Fernandez said after her semi-final match, was “a huge inspiration.”
“I remember my father using him as an example for a month one time, telling us, ‘we gotta fight, we gotta work hard just like Steve Nash.'”
Fernandez’s father, Jorge, who stayed at home with her younger sister during the tournament, has been her coach since she was dropped from Tennis Quebec’s development programme at the age of seven.
He admits that when he began coaching his daughter, he knew nothing about the sport and taught himself through a combination of books, videos, and his own experience as a former professional footballer.
“The art of being a great coach is knowing you don’t know anything,” Jorge told The Globe and Mail. “And when you don’t know anything, you just get hungry to find out.”
Her mother made sacrifices for her daughter’s career as well. While Jorge was coaching Leylah full-time, Irene Exevea became the family’s primary breadwinner. She relocated to California for three years, seeing her children only twice a year.
Following her defeat to Raducanu, Fernandez paid tribute to her family and promised to return to New York for “the right trophy.”
“I appreciate you always believing in me,” she said. “You guys are incredible; you were there for me when I was at my lowest, when I was in pain, when I was going through a difficult time. And you were there when I was at my best, so thank you for always having my back.”