A Day With a Palm Tree: Leylah Fernandez, World-Class Fighter

“A day with a palm tree is a great day.”

Stories of personal triumph, community engagement, and environmental stewardship.

This is the first of a new series of inspirational stories I’ll be posting as I continue my path of recovery. I hope they will inspire you to appreciate each day we are given — whether you have palm trees or pine trees or buildings outside your door, it’s a great day.

Leylah Annie Fernandez had a goal

Earlier this year, when Leylah Annie Fernandez was a little-known 18-year-old Canadian tennis player living in South Florida, she said that her goal was to be in the top ten professional women players in the world. The sport writers were skeptical.

Not anymore. She turned 19 on the day before playing for the trophy in the finals of the US Open tennis tournament, having beaten top-ranked opponents on the way to Arthur Ashe stadium, beginning with Naomi Osaka. She’s zoomed into 23rd place on the roster.

In the on-court interview after her stunning victory over Osaka, she was asked if she ever believed she could best Osaka. ”Yes,” she responded with a huge smile. ”Just before the match.”

That’s confidence.

She stepped up

There’s a lot to be said for someone like Fernandez, who has lost a lot of first and second round of matches on the WTA tour this year, producing a completely different level of tennis under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, for stepping up in close matches against a series of true champions and executing better than they did. That’s what great players do.

Dan Wolken, USA Today, September 11, 2021

Inner steel

As bubbly and engaging as she is off court, the inner steel shines through.

Simon Cambers, The Guardian, September 10, 2021

It’s steel honed by hard work. The daughter of immigrants from Ecuador and the Philippines, Fernandez moved from Montreal to my neighboring town of Boynton Beach in 2018. I assumed that the move was to permit her to train at a prestigious (and expensive) tennis academy, like Chris Evert’s school. Then I read that she trains on public courts and at the beach, and that her father, a former soccer player, is her coach.

Check out this training video, and remember that it’s hot and humid — sweat dripping off your face when you go for a walk — down here.

…a world-class fighter who walks between points with the steely determination of someone on her way to break up a bar brawl.

Christopher Clarey, The New York Times, September 12, 2021

A new bar

Fernandez didn’t win the US Open championship. That went to another brown-skinned daughter of immigrants, England’s Emma Raducanu. These multicultural, multilingual teenagers have just set a new bar for grit, resilience, and joy in the game.

While Raducanu — the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title — expressed wonderment at her unlikely win, Fernandez, whose top-100 ranking got her into the tournament, may have been tripped up by really, really being sure she would prevail. Recovering from this loss, she said during the on-court interview, would be hard. And then she added this.

I know on this day it was especially hard for New York and everyone around us. I just hope that I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.

Leylah Fernandez, September 11, 2021

Class act

Leylah Fernandez, New York strong, world-class fighter, class act. You are inspiring my continuing journey of recovery.