TORONTO — Leylah Fernandez showed the poise of a champion after a memorable run to the US Open tennis final last summer, a feat that showed she had truly arrived on one of the sport’s biggest podiums.
Just moments after snatching a Grand Slam title, the Canadian teen delivered a house-topping speech at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Her eloquence impressed the New York audience that day, as did the quality of her playing over the past two weeks.
Fernandez’s upset over the women’s draw was one of the highlights of a breakthrough season for the Montreal native. She also earned her first WTA Tour title in 2021 and climbed the world rankings to crack the top 25.
Fernandez closed her year on Tuesday by winning the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canadian Press Female Athlete of the Year.
An emerging player in 73rd place who entered the US Open had modest expectations at the start of the tournament. Fernandez would wildly surpass them.
She stunned defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round and knocked out more big names like Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka en route to the final.
“I was very, very proud of myself, how I was able to be composed and how I was able to show up in those important moments so I could get through the finish line,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez surprised the lively crowd along the way with her energy, spirit and determination. Fans were flabbergasted and hailed the 19-year-old Canadian as a favorite from his hometown.
However, the final match did not go as she wanted, as she fell to British qualifier Emma Raducanu.
It was an emotional afternoon in New York on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. After an interview on the track, Fernandez asked for the microphone back before receiving the finalist’s trophy so she could address the audience one last time.
“I know this day was especially difficult for New York and everyone in the United States,” she said. “I just want to say that I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been for the past twenty years.
“Thank you for always standing behind me, thank you for encouraging me. I love you New York and hope to see you next year.”
The applause of the more than 23,000 spectators present was deafening.
In addition to her first Grand Slam final, Fernandez – who started the year in 88th place in the world – won the Monterrey Open in March. She also helped Canada to a 4-0 win over Serbia in the Billie Jean King Cup play-offs in April.
This year’s Rosenfeld race was an exciting one with Fernandez receiving 12 out of 45 votes from sports editors, writers and broadcasters across Canada. Swimmers Penny Oleksiak and Maggie Mac Neil finished with 10 votes each.
“This award will be one of many she will win,” said Tennis Canada president Michael Downey. “We are just so proud of this young woman, both for what she did on the track and what she does off the track, because her speech after she lost the (US Open) final was one of all times.
“We’re just so proud of her.”
Fernandez, who lives and trains in Boynton Beach, Florida, is the third tennis player to win the annual award in the past decade. Bianca Andreescu won it in 2019 and Eugenie Bouchard won it in 2013 and ’14.
“Leylah’s run through what is arguably the most difficult of the tennis majors – the US Open – has been nothing short of remarkable,” said Kelowna Daily Courier editor-in-chief David Trifunov.
“Her surgical cuts through the field of former champions and No. 1 in the world — all with what becomes her signature dimpled smile — is just the tonic Canadian sports fans need in a pandemic.”
Fernandez finished the year with a record 25-17, earning $1.77 million in prize money.
Football star Christine Sinclair received the Rosenfeld honor last year.
“I am very honored to be among these athletes who have done so much for women’s sport, and their respective sports, and even outside of their sport,” Fernandez said. “Growing up, I read about (Sinclair) in the news.
“I have seen how much she has accomplished and I am honored to have my name next to hers.”
The winner of the Lionel Conacher Award, presented to CP’s Male Athlete of the Year, will be announced on Wednesday. The team of the year will be revealed on Thursday.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 28, 2021.
Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter. With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Lori Ewing.
Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press