A famous sports manager in the American city of Baltimore wrote an autobiography which had the title, “It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts.” That could easily describe the journey facing Leylah Fernandez this year.
That isn’t meant to be literally true, of course. It is profoundly true, however. Leylah Fernandez really did have things figured out at the 2021 U.S. Open. She displayed considerable mastery of the sport of tennis, beating Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber and Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka in contentious, prolonged battles. Fernandez didn’t just beat elite players — top-10 fixtures and multiple major champions — she outwitted them and outlasted them.
Toughness, guile, court craft, stamina, crunch-time nerves — Fernandez’s victories were narrow yet complete. She had to dig into every part of a tennis player’s toolbox to win those matches on the biggest stage against the best players. Though she lost to Emma Raducanu in the final, that was a high-quality championship match. Fernandez was not overawed by the occasion. She played well. Her opponent was simply better.
Leylah Fernandez, though a teenager, played with the wisdom and resolve of a seasoned veteran. It was as though she knew exactly what to do in a multitude of difficult situations.
Yet, it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts. Translated: Even after your greatest achievement or your most meteoric rise as a performer, what happens? There’s another day with another performance in another event before another crowd.
Think you have it all figured out? Great. Do it again, then.
Foil another opponent. Satisfy another throng of paying customers. Reaffirm your greatness. Prove that you’re not going to be dislodged from the summit of your chosen profession.
There is always a “next day” in tennis, until retirement arrives. There is always the “day after,” the next occasion to prove something after having achieved at a high level.
Leylah Fernandez’s Australian Open first-round match against Maddison Inglis was her first major-tournament main-draw singles match since that U.S. Open final against Raducanu in New York.
Fernandez came to Melbourne with a target on her back. The world was watching to see if she could author another stirring run through a major-tournament fortnight.
Instead, her campaign ended quickly, in a 4-and-2 loss to the 24-year-old Inglis, who had a few years of experience to draw from and patiently constructed a winning effort.
Fernandez was drubbed.
Many will say the U.S. Open was a fluke. You know those people are out there. You know there’s a certain skepticism attached to a hugely surprising turn of events such as the one we saw last September in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It’s time to separate fact from fiction.
Maybe in five years we could say that title is a fluke, but right now, it’s way too early to tell, and moreover, we shouldn’t use this year’s results as a measurement or reflection of how good Leylah Fernandez and — for that matter — Emma Raducanu truly are.
We can all see and appreciate that the two women played beyond their years last September. They both did something remarkable, Raducanu in particular. They showed skills and resources which offer the possibility of superstardom in the future, but we know that’s not guaranteed. Nothing is.
The 2022 tennis season is certainly an opportunity for Fernandez and Raducanu to build on what they did several months ago, but if this year features nothing but a bunch of “kicked to the curb” moments, that won’t represent a failure or even a disappointment.
Frankly, we should all have the expectation that in 2022, Fernandez and Raducanu will be punched in the teeth.
Maybe they will rise above that expectation — it would be great if it happened — but the normal way of the warrior in tennis is to rise to a new height, become the target of the locker room, get shoved around, and THEN make the adjustments which define a sustained and enduring champion, the immortal player we talk about 30 to 50 years after a career ends.
Iga Swiatek destroyed the competition at the 2020 Roland Garros tournament in October. In 2021, she largely got punched in the teeth. It wasn’t a failure. It was the normal way of proceeding, the usual order of things, the laws of nature in tennis emerging as they typically do.
It’s no different with Fernandez. Her “day after” journey now has truly begun.