Canadians and Ryerson students rally behind new teenage tennis phenom

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By Crina Mustafa

Canada was united by sport once again thanks to 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez’s triumphant run to the 2021 U.S. Open Women’s Final, which ended Sept. 11 at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York.  

Fernandez fell 6-4, 6-3 to Britain’s Emma Raducanu, but the impact of her performance at one of the four major tournaments in tennis, also known as Grand Slams, goes beyond the final score. Not only was a teenager able to rally an entire nation behind her, Fernandez proved that women’s sports are desirable.

According to The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch, the 2021 women’s US Open final drew 2.4 million viewers on ESPN. In comparison, the final of the men’s tournament, which featured the top two seeds in the world, drew just over two  million viewers.

Tennis has also caught up in recent years when it comes to salary, with both women and men getting an equal cheque at Grand Slams since 2007. Other major sports could stand to do the same, but there’s more to it than that. 

“It’s not just about money, we have to look at sport and development in a very specific way. What are the paths for young women, what do they look like?” said Shireen Ahmed, an instructor at Ryerson teaching sports reporting, in addition to being a journalist and sports activist.

Beyond compensation, it’s the infrastructure of sport itself. It starts with equal opportunity in sport. 

“In some levels of racquet sports they’re obligated to go to a certain number of tournaments a year, but the boys still get one more than the girls—why is that? Money’s a huge part of it, but what are the other pieces that are working here…how do we make it a place where it’s sustainable to have women in tennis?” said Ahmed.

Both Fernandez and Raducanu are players that like to hit the ball early and play on the baseline, meaning there was a flurry of rallies between the two in the fast-paced final match.

“How do we make it a place where it’s sustainable to have women in tennis?”

Where Fernandez differed from her finals opponent was with her netplay. This skill was key when she beat defending champion Naomi Osaka earlier in the third round of the tournament, which put her on the radar. Fernandez also beat Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka, who are all top-ranked Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) players at the event.

“She brings so much passion and fire to each match,” said Mikayla Guarasci, a second-year sport media student at Ryerson. 

Fernandez’s performance at the tournament has fans asking why we get so invested in the excellence of athletes, even when we don’t follow their sport. 

“Whenever I see a Canadian do well in sports, I will watch, and Leylah from the start was playing phenomenal,” said Yasmin Adina, a third year politics and governance student at Ryerson. 

“I like the story of the underdog doing well in sports,” said Adina.

While there’s lots of attention on tennis in Canada now, there are other aspects to pay attention to when rallying around these players. One of those aspects is that Fernandez is a biracial woman who competes on the highest stage. 

“It’s inspiring as hell. It’s special with Leylah because she also is a first-generation immigrant. It’s very cool seeing first-gen kids representing Canada on the world stage,” said Adina. “The diversity is amazing and not what you expect when you think of Canada.”

Ahmed is keen to see how Fernandez uses her newfound platform. She recalled the poise Osaka, who is Black and Japanese, carries herself with when it comes to conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and mental health. 

Osaka recently faced criticism for choosing not to speak to media before matches and stepping away from tennis to prioritize her own mental health. 

“So now with Fernandez, I know it’s different because she’s not a Black woman, but she’s a racialized woman. I’m interested now as somebody who works on the intersections of race and gender in sports specifically, what her interaction with [those] discussions will be,” said Ahmed.

Adina is also confident the play of Fernandez and Félix Auger-Aliassime, a Black Canadian who made the semifinals at the tournament in the men’s draw, will help grow interest in the sport.

“It’s very cool seeing first-gen kids representing Canada on the world stage”

“Both [Fernandez] and Felix were very fun to watch, and I think players like them will get more BIPOC kids interested in the sport.”

In the wake of Fernandez’s heroic run to the US Open Final, the ball is in Tennis Canada’s court when it comes to capitalizing on the summer of Canadian tennis.

“They should look at themselves as well and be like, ‘Well, what’s happening here? What do we need to be doing? Because now we have all this attention,’” said Ahmed. 

Even though the final Grand Slam of the year is over, it made a lasting impact. It also showed how important it is to support women in sports from the ground up, not just when they start to win.

Once we do that, it will be game, set and match.

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