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"There's a place for us here": Fernandez inspiring to Canadians of immigrant descent

Stephanie Valenzuela confesses she's never been "a crazy tennis fan," watching the sport only occasionally in the past if a tournament sparked her interest.

Stephanie Valenzuela confesses she's never been "a crazy tennis fan," watching the sport only occasionally in the past if a tournament sparked her interest.

But that casual fandom has grown exponentially since Canada's Leylah Annie Fernandez began her remarkable run at the U.S. Open.

Valenzuela, a 30-year-old Filipina-Canadian in Montreal, says she's been enthralled over the last two weeks with the diminutive 19-year-old Fernandez, a Filipina-Ecuadorian from Laval, Que., who has taken down giant after giant to advance to her first Grand Slam final.

Fernandez, ranked No. 73 when the major began on Aug. 30, beat No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday night to reach Saturday's final against British teen Emma Raducanu.

She also beat four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, and No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina over the last week, gaining new supporters with each stunning victory.

Valenzuela and friends included.

"Even if you're not interested in the sport, you get into it, just out of the pride of seeing somebody from your cultural background, from your country of origin," says Valenzuela, a Montreal native born to Filipino parents who immigrated to Canada in the 1980s. 

"To see where she's at, it just proves there is a place for us here. … Filipino-Canadians have just as much of an opportunity as anyone else in Canada."

Fernandez was born to a Filipina-Canadian mother and Ecuadorian father, who also serves as her coach. The family moved years ago to Florida, where Fernandez and her younger sister Bianca now train. 

Valenzuela says she's been captivated by not only Fernandez's playing style and fearlessness in the face of her toughest opponents, but also her family's story. 

Fernandez's father Jorge wiped away tears during a video interview with TSN this week when talking about Canada welcoming his immigrant family. He added he wouldn't have been able to give his daughters the lives they have without that welcome.

Valenzuela, who's a candidate for Montreal's city council elections this November, says that message resonated with her.

"It's amazing to hear her father (talk about) her roots, her heritage as a Canadian, as an Ecuadorian, as a Filipina," Valenzuela says. "And it really just shows that regardless of your background, if you work really hard and you have the support, you can get there."

Fernandez is one of many young Canadian tennis stars to have immediate roots in other countries. 

Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 U.S. Open champion, was born in Romania before moving to Canada at a young age while former world No. 3 Milos Raonic is originally from Montenegro. 

Denis Shapovalov's mother is an Israeli-Ukrainian tennis coach and former player, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, the 21-year-old Montrealer playing in Friday's men's semifinal, is the son of a French-Canadian mother and Togo-born father.

Diego Stacey-Moreno, Ecuador's ambassador to Canada, says having so many cultures represented among Canadian players enhances the game here.

"It's important that these new generations don't forget their roots, that they keep their cultural traditions in order to enrich new traditions," he says in a phone interview from Ottawa. 

"(Fernandez) is a mixture of diversity that shows the world a human being should be taken with all their feelings, all their heritage."

Tennis Canada says they'll host a viewing party in Montreal for Saturday's match, with COVID safety measures in place. The Filipino Association of Montreal and Suburbs says community members regularly gather at their centre on weekends: "and we will not miss the finals, of course."

Stacey-Moreno plans to watch Saturday's match with other Ecuadorians in Ottawa, and says win or lose, there are bound to be some celebrations around Ecuador and Canada.

"I can assure you they're following very closely," he says. "I must say we are all in love with Leylah."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2021.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press