A few months ago, Leylah Annie Fernandez was far from a household name in Canada. But after a series of stunning performances at the US Open, she is the toast of the town – french toast with extra maple syrup, to be precise.
The 19-year-old from Quebec celebrated her birthday just days ago and she joins her fellow Montrealer, 21-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, in the semi-finals of the US Open. The pair play the men’s and women’s world No 2s in their respective semi-finals: Auger-Aliassime against Daniil Medvedev on Friday night while Fernandez faces Aryna Sabalenka under the Arthur Ashe lights on Thursday.
It’s a fine era for Canadian tennis. Since Wimbledon 2014, Canada has had six different grand slam semi-finalists – Auger-Aliassime, Fernandez, Bianca Andreescu, Eugenie Bouchard, Milos Raonic and Denis Shapovalov. What’s more Auger-Aliassime is the first Canadian male to reach the semi-finals in US Open history.
The rise is no fluke. Canada, despite being famous for winter sports, has invested heavily in tennis and the results are starting to become apparent. Even more encouraging, the players represent the country’s diversity – Bouchard is French Canadian, Raonic was born in what is now Montenegro, Andreescu’s parents emigrated from Romania while Shapovalov’s mother is Ukrainian Jewish and his father is a Russian Orthodox Christian. Of this year’s semi-finalists, Fernandez is of Ecuadorian and Filipino descent while Auger-Aliassime’s father was born in Togo.
But Canadian tennis is not without its issues when it comes to race. Francoise Abanda, also from Montreal, has been public about her struggles within the system as a Black Canadian player. In 2018, she was 40 places higher than Bouchard in the world rankings yet she says she got far less coverage and support.
“I’m not asking to be exposed like a No 1 player, I’m not asking to get the same recognition as other players who have achieved more,” she told the Canadian Press at the time. “I’m just saying that there is a minimum that sometimes I don’t even get.”
Abanda was on my radar because she is one of the few Black tennis players in Canada. I was not surprised to hear her comment, and also unsurprised at how few Canadian networks or news agencies even covered her remarks.
Dr Courtney Szto is one of Canada’s leading sports sociologists. In an email, she told me that tennis doesn’t appear to have as much of the overt racism that hockey does in Canada. However, she added that we should not take too much away from the fact that racism in Canadian tennis is rarely discussed.
“I think racism in tennis is a conversation predominantly pushed by Black women and we haven’t seen Canadian tennis players really embrace anti-racism with their full chest,” Szto wrote. “We don’t talk about racism in Canadian tennis because we don’t talk about racism in Canada.”
Fernandez has an Ecuadorian father and a Filipino-Canadian mother. Auger-Aliassime is Black. To the delight of tennis fans and sugar bush operators of the north, Fernandez credited maple syrup for the recent success of Canadian tennis. “The Canadian maple syrup is very good,” she told the US Open crowd in a post-game interview. And Auger-Aliassime agreed.
The nod to a staple of Canadiana is heartwarming but will the accomplishments of two young tennis stars be enough to combat the racism that does exist in the sport? Will the Canadian tennis community gloss over any issues, or ignore the much-needed conversations that need to continue?
According to Szto, players with more than one racial background – like Fernandez, Naomi Osaka and Emma Raducanu – prompt questions about who gets to represent a nation. Raducanu was born in Canada to a Romanian father and Chinese mother but moved to the UK as a child, and now represents Great Britain. Part of the system of racism is the questioning of national identity (one of the first questions to appear when you google Raducanu is “How is Emma Raducanu British?”).
While the lines of a tennis court are clear, who represents which nation, and what racial identity they have is not as defined. Nor should it be. Naomi Osaka represents her mixed Haitian and Japanese identity with much love and respect. And she has managed to fight racism and create discussions around athletes’ mental health while putting intrusive journalists in their place.
While Fernandez’s charm has endeared her to tennis fans around the world, we should hope that the Canadian tennis community support her and Auger-Aliassime, as they continue to succeed in a predominantly white sport.
In the meantime, I shall toast their success with shots of maple syrup.