TO A few months ago, Leylah Annie Fernandez was far from a household name in Canada. But after a series of impressive performances at the US Open, she’s the toast of the city – French toast with extra maple syrup, to be precise.
The 19-year-old from Quebec celebrated her birthday just a few days ago and joins her fellow Montrealer, Felix Auger-Aliassime, 21, in the semifinals of the US Open. The pair play the world’s No. 2 male and female in their respective semi-finals: Auger-Aliassime versus Daniil Medvedev on Friday night, while Fernandez faces Aryna Sabalenka under the lights of Arthur Ashe on Thursday.
It is a good time 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. Additionally, Auger-Aliassime is the first Canadian man to reach the semifinals in US Open history.
The increase is no accident. Canada, despite being famous for winter sports, has invested heavily in tennis and the results are beginning to be apparent. Even more encouraging, the players represent the diversity of the country: Bouchard is French-Canadian, Raonic was born in what is now Montenegro, Andreescu’s parents emigrated from Romania, while Shapovalov’s mother is a Ukrainian Jew and his father is a Russian Orthodox Christian. . Of this year’s semifinalists, Fernández is of Ecuadorian and Filipino descent, while Auger-Aliassime’s father was born in Togo.
But Canadian tennis is not without its problems when it comes to racing. Francoise Abanda, also from Montreal, has been public about her struggles within the system as a black Canadian player. In 2018, he was 40 places higher than Bouchard in the world rankings, but he says he received much less coverage and support.
“I am not asking to be exposed as a number 1 player, I am not asking for the same recognition as other players who have achieved more,” she told the Canadian press at the time. “I’m just saying 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 his comment, and I was also not surprised that few Canadian networks or news agencies even covered his comments.
Dr. Courtney Szto is one of Canada’s leading sports sociologists. In an email, he told me that tennis doesn’t seem to have as much overt racism as hockey in Canada. However, he added that we should not take too far off the fact that racism in Canadian tennis is rarely discussed.
“I think racism in tennis is a predominantly black female-driven conversation and we haven’t seen Canadian tennis players really embrace anti-racism with their whole heart,” wrote Szto. “We are not talking about racism in Canadian tennis because we are not talking about racism in Canada.”
Fernández has an Ecuadorian father and a Filipino-Canadian mother. Auger-Aliassime is black. To the delight of northern tennis fans and sugar bush operators, Fernandez credited maple syrup for the recent success of Canadian tennis. “Canadian maple syrup is very good,” he told the US Open crowd at a post game interview. AND Auger-Aliassime agreed.
The nod to a Canadiana staple is poignant, but will the accomplishments of two young tennis stars be enough to combat the racism that exists in the sport? Will the Canadian tennis community overlook any issues or ignore the much-needed conversations that must continue?
According to Szto, players with more than one racial origin, such as Fernández, Naomi Osaka and Emma Raducanu, raise questions about who represents 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 that appears when you Google Raducanu is “How is Emma Raducanu British?”).
While the lines of a tennis court are clear, who represents what nation and what racial identity they have is not defined. Nor should it be. Naomi Osaka represents her mixed Haitian and Japanese identity with a lot of love and respect. And it has managed to fight racism and create debates about the mental health of athletes while putting intrusive journalists in their place.
While Fernandez’s charm has made her loved by tennis fans around the world, we must expect the Canadian tennis community to support her and Auger-Aliassime as they continue to succeed in a predominantly white sport.
In the meantime, I’ll toast your success with shots of maple syrup.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism