Leylah Annie draws her inspiration from sporting greats of smaller built - like a Lionel Messi or Pele - to chart her ambitions. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Dubai: Her father Jorge is from Ecuador and her mum Irene is originally from the Philippines. Both moved to Canada as youngsters and Jorge, being a former footballer, speaks both Spanish and English while his Filipino wife is fluent in English.

Not quite the ideal background to be a tennis champion, but Leylah Annie - the elder of the two sisters (Bianca is the younger one) - made heads turn when she went on to win the French Open girls crown in the middle of last year.

In an interview with the official website of the International Tennis Federation, the 17-year-old Canadian has revealed her secret as to how she took the bigger built and more astute opposition in her stride.

 Barcelona's Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi, according to Leylah Annie, is one of the greatest athletes who has overcome a smaller build to become one of the alltime greats in his sport. Image Credit: AP

Following a suggestion from her coach and father, the teenage sensation - who will turn 18 on September 6 - has disclosed that she has been studying and analysing a host of sporting icons including Lionel Messi, Mike Tyson, Wayne Gretzky, Pele and Floyd Mayweather among others.

At first sight, none of the sporting icons have anything in common with Fernandez or her average physical build. At the beginning of March, she had achieved a career-high WTA singles ranking of No.126 till all tennis got suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, there is a specific reason why she is spending time with her analysis of various top sporting icons: she simply wants to acquire their characteristics and be like them!

“I want to earn my place on the WTA Tour and be considered a champion,” Fernandez said in the interview.

“I love tennis and I really believe that I am a competitor and I feel having those characteristics [of top sporting icons] will help me get there,” she added.

Earlier in 2019, the Montreal-born left-hander made news while making it into the Australian Open girls singles final where she lost to top seed Clara Tauson of Denmark in straight sets. She made suitable amends when she defeated Emma Navarro in June last year to become the first Canadian female winner of a junior Grand Slam since Eugenie Bouchard won at 2012 Wimbledon, and also the first player from Canada to bag a Grand Slam Juniors since Felix Auger-Aliassime won his in the 2016 US Open.

The suggestion to analyse great sporting icons came from her dad. “It’s about understanding that my stature is perfect for my personality and skills. I look into their creativity, uniqueness, use of angles, speed, aggressive defence and the fluidity of their movements among other things,” Fernandez said.

She made her Grand Slam debut at the 2020 Australian Open where she made it through the qualifying competition before losing in the opening round of the main draw against Lauren Davies. However, good things continued to happen as Fernandez picked up the biggest win of her career the following week in the Fed Cup qualifying round with a 6-2, 7-6 (3) result against world No.5, Belinda Bencic.

Later in February, Fernandez waded through qualifying and into her first WTA Tour final at the Mexican Open in Acapulco, winning 12 sets in-a-row, till she went down to World No.69 Heather Watson at the final hurdle. She also famously beat former US Open champion Sloane Stephens and that took her 100 places ahead in her world ranking.

Fernandez is also learning to drive and working towards graduating High School by making use of this period of shutdown. “I also focus on having great tennis IQ, believing in my style and using other players in different sport as motivation. I am not as big as the other females [players] on Tour, so I assume there have been times when I’ve been underestimated,” she said.