Félix Auger-Aliassime and Leylah Fernandez: Latest chapters in Canadian tennis’ immigrant story

Félix Auger-Aliassime and Leylah Fernandez are not just the products of the assembly line that is Tennis Canada’s high-performance development programme but also part of a larger trend.

On Tuesday, Félix Auger-Aliassime (Au-shay Alia-sim) became the first Canadian man to reach the US Open semifinals. The 21-year-old’s walkover win over Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz came hours after compatriot Leylah Fernandez beat world no. 5 Elina Svitolina. Fernandez, who turned 19 on Monday, is now the youngest woman to reach the singles semi-finals in New York since Maria Sharapova in 2005.

The results come two years after Bianca Andreescu became the first Canadian to win a singles Grand Slam title at the US Open. All three are not just the products of the assembly line that is Tennis Canada’s high-performance development programme but also part of a larger trend.

Auger-Aliassime, Fernandez and Andreescu — along with world No. 10 Denis Shapovalov, Milos Raonic (ranked 34) and Vasek Pospisil (ranked 58) — are Canadian tennis stars who are the Canadian-born children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

The background

Fernandez’s father and coach, Jorge, was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and moved to Montreal with his family as a child. Fernandez’s mother Irene Exevea is of Filipino descent from Toronto. Auger-Aliassime’s tennis instructor father moved from Togo, West Africa to L’Ancienne-Lorette, a Quebec suburb.

Raonic, former world no. 3 and 2016 Wimbledon finalist of Serbian descent, was born in Titograd, SFR Yugoslavia (now Podgorica, Montenegro) in 1990 and came to Canada with his engineer parents as a four-year-old. Mississauga-born Andreescu’s parents arrived from Romania “with one bag and a frying pan” in 1994 as well. Vernon, British Columbia-born Pospisil’s parents are refugees from Czechoslovakia via Austria while Shapovalov’s parents came from the former Soviet Union via Israel.

“The whole story starts with my mum,” Shapovalov told the Guardian in 2019. “She was playing in the Soviet Union, on the national team. She was pretty good, around 300 to 400 in the world. Then she moved down to Israel with her coach. As soon as I was born, they decided to move to Canada. I was probably about seven months old.

“They moved there with nothing. For months we were sleeping just on a mattress in an apartment. My mum started coaching at a tennis club. My dad worked a couple of jobs; he worked in a factory, doing pastries and stuff. They spoke barely any English back then, so it was very difficult. They speak Russian, Ukrainian and Hebrew. My mum’s part-Jewish and my dad’s Greek Russian Orthodox.”

Mentality, work ethic

In a 2019 interview with The New Yorker, Auger-Aliassime credited the immigrant mentality for the work ethic, and, by extension the promising results in Canadian tennis.

“We all arrived in Canada at a young age or, like myself, were born there. We all consider ourselves a hundred per cent Canadian. But different routes, different backgrounds — I think that gives us an opening on the world,” he said. “I know for my part it helped, seeing what my dad had to sacrifice to come to Canada, leaving all his family behind. I think he really gave us the tools and the education that you have to work, you have to earn your place in this world.”

Fernandez’s father, Jorge, who has described himself as a former journeyman footballer in Latin America in recent interviews, coached Leylah up the junior ranks.

“They were just scraping by, and it takes money to move in this sport, to move around, get where you need to go,” Fernandez’s former coach Dave Rineberg told USA Today. “I’ve seen so many fathers bank on it and give up everything, quit their jobs, and I’ve had to talk to many of them and say, ‘Take the college scholarship’ and you can’t convince them. Stories like these are rare.”

Fernandez proposed simpler reasoning behind the Canadian tennis revolution. When asked the secret to the rising stars in the post-match interview on Tuesday, she promptly responded: “I would say it’s the maple syrup. The Canadian maple syrup is very good.”

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