Through the Eyes of a Father and Coach: Jorge Fernandez’ Story Part 1

Jorge Fernandez and family

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Oct 12, 2021

(Photo courtesy:  Tennistonic.com)

The decision to become his daughter’s tennis coach did not come easily to Jorge Fernandez. It was necessary, came following much thought and was based on keeping his word, says the father of three.

“It’s as simple and as innocent as a simple promise that a father makes a daughter,” says Fernandez who coaches his middle daughter, Leylah Annie — a professional Canadian tennis player who captured the attention of the world in 2021 during a magical run that culminated in a berth at a Grand Slam final at the age of 19.


Click for video transcription

Welcome to Where Parents Talk. I’m Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a father of three a former professional soccer player, and a current tennis coach. His daughter Layla vaulted to the top of the tennis world in 2021. Earning a spot in the finals of the US Open at the age of 19. Jorge Fernandez coaches his daughter, Leylah, he joins us from the family home in Boynton Beach, Florida. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Thank you very much for having me. Always a pleasure.

Jorge I’m interested, you’ve had some time to process this now. What would you say surprised you most about Leylah is performance at her first Grand Slam experience in the final.

Yeah, I’ve had I was definitely had a couple of days to really think about it. And you know, it’s a little bit difficult. Because initially, my thoughts are always as a coach. And, and as you mentioned, I come from a different different background altogether from from a sporting perspective, which is, you know, soccer or football, as we know it back home. And we’re very passionate. When we’re happy, we let it out, when we’re sad, we let it out. When we’re angry, we let it out. So the initial reaction was just a very competitive environment. And we were very, you know, only just we were just very down very sad that it slipped through our fingers, because it’s just, I think anybody who’s competed at any level, you know, experiences, you know, that, that just downfall, right of emotions. And, you know, it’s funny because I, you know, I was kind of laugh at people, you know, I shouldn’t, but it’s, it’s weird how the word you got when, and then you got the word loss. And you were so intelligent, and we see kids or people just be down, because they lost, but lost, you lose something. And sometimes it feels like you lose something of yourself, right? So in those moments, and the type of guy that says, Let’s experience the emotion, so we can turn the page afterwards when it’s time to turn the page. So the initial reaction was that of feeling that we lost something, and I didn’t want to focus on anything else, so we can get through it, and turn the page. Since then, however, you know, it’s, it’s an overnight success that has been, you know, brewing for 10 years. And we’re, you know, I’m extremely, extremely happy for her with what she accomplished on the tennis court. But unbelievably proud of the person that she is, you know, is just what I saw is a young teenager transformed herself into a young lady who found her voice. You know, and this is the moment that I was happy that I wasn’t there. You know, I was happy that I wasn’t taking care of things for her. I was happy that she was doing it all on her own. You know, and if you ask any of my girls, three girls, as you mentioned, I always strive for my girls to be strong, independent, intelligent women are you know, and throughout, this is not something that you start at 17 you know, you start gradually your year by year so, you know, when I saw her on TV and the way that she was speaking, and you know, she was so elegant and eloquent and you know, a little bit shy but yet she needed to you know, everybody to hear her voice. I just I just kind of saw Well, this is this is now a young lady becoming you know, a young woman, and she’s fine, she’s found her voice and she’s letting everybody know, just who she is off the court not only on the court, so I was really like when I processed it all. That is the lasting memory, US Open. You know, 2021 will forever be when is when when, when I saw my my daughter Leylah, you know find herself.

What a powerful memory as a parent and you know, to, to also be able to see that development as her coach. So, as you well know how being a student of of, of coaching as you’ve been. There are a lot of parents who are coaches in tennis, probably at a higher percentage than than most other sports, one could argue I don’t know the numbers, I don’t know if they’re even tracked. But there are a lot of people in tennis players who are coached by their parents, when you made the decision to take over as her head coach, what preparation? Or what strategy? What coaching philosophy? Did you want to follow to ensure that that Father relationship, and then the coach relationship was preserved and continued to grow at the same time?

Now, that’s, that’s a fantastic question, honestly, because I think a lot of times, we just kind of jump in blindly. And that’s when all the mistakes happen. The number one thing that I always knew, and still to this day, it’s my, it’s almost my philosophy of life is that I just, I don’t know everything. I just don’t know everything. But parallel to that, is just the obligation to understand when you’ve made a mistake, and the obligation to own that mistake, and to apologize for that mistake. But most importantly, change. I think if you have that capacity, then learning becomes easy. Because when you make a mistake, you can recognize it and apologize. You know, and I think a lot of the times what happens when parents get involved. Of course, parents have all the best intentions, they have, you know, they have an unbelievable amount of love, you know, and there’s nothing that they would we wouldn’t do for their kids, you know, this is this is quite normal. When the danger zone is that you start getting into a situation where you say, well, you do what I tell you because I’m your father. And that’s where it starts getting a little bit murky. Because playing a sport is not a father, daughter, Father, Son or mother, daughter, mother, son, you know, parent, child activity is not meant for that. So saying, Listen to me, because I’m your father is an incorrect statement. So because I kind of thought about that, and, you know, realize that there was an immense amount of opportunity to make a lot of mistakes. I decided to really separate you know, the coaching hat and the father hat. And, you know, again, it is not an easy thing to do, it really isn’t because I had no experience up until that point, not only coaching tennis, but coaching kids, okay, I only coach men, you know, so I can tell you I have three daughters. And I’ve always been been surrounded by women, my whole my whole life. Now I got sisters and my mom, my mom played an integral part in my in in myself growing up. And I can tell you with 100% you know, assurance that I don’t know the first thing about being a woman or how women things or would they feel I can’t you know, and it’s always a beautiful surprise. Now with that said I was walking into a minefield so I think the onus of a parent is not to want to immediately teach is to immediately study themselves what are the downfalls? What are the pitfalls where is the danger so you can minimize the mistakes that you’re going to make because believe me you’re going to make the mistakes you know the obvious is that some parents push too hard that’s the obvious the not so obvious is some parents don’t push at all. Now when I say that is because your your your son, your daughter, they’re doing something for their dream, right? So if you don’t push them along sometimes then they might actually just you know fall off the road all completely so it is not a situation that is easily maneuvered as well. My my personal advice based on what I’ve done is it’s okay to study the game. I get it. I did it. It’s okay to study the pitfalls. No problem. Let’s study yourself first understand who it is that you want. Look, I am a very, very, very tough coach. I am relentless, I am unforgiving. I am extremely demanding. Part of it is because I believe that the player in front of me is great, and can reach anything that they want. You know, it’s, it’s my almost immaturity, I don’t, I don’t like putting blocks and chains and roofs and ceilings on on dreams. And the other part is because unfortunately, I’ve only taught men. So, I knew that that was a weakness. So I studied myself and I tried to change myself. So as a parent, you got to study yourself. Now. I was lucky, because I have experience in sports. That was a huge blessing. You know, and I wouldn’t have wouldn’t recommend any parent, no matter what amount of experience you have to do it because it really, really is difficult. But if you have to, and you really want your player, or your your son or daughter, to really achieve something, like studying yourself, start by understanding who you are. Because understanding the sport, trust me, it’ll be easy. But you understanding yourself so you can know what to say in different situations and how to build a conversation. You can do it if you don’t know yourself, really, you can’t. And that was the biggest thing for me. And then understand that you’re going to make mistakes. So you better not be that proud father or mother that says no, no, listen to me, because all you’re going to do is alienate your child. And that’s where people have seen me tough. And they scratch their head. And they say, how do you have a Leylah? She’s like the sweetest person ever. Right? But once we get off that, that court, before we even get on that court, I explained who I am, I explain what’s going to happen. And when that happens, I explained what I’m expecting of her, then nothing tennis is not tennis. This is what I expect out of her as a person. So if I am rattling her cage, I expect her to figure out how to remain calm. I expected to and to figure out how to remain focus. Now you don’t go do this at six. Right? Let’s be, let’s be aware of the different age groups. But as they get older, you know, you start rambling a little bit more, a little bit more and controlled in a controlled manner. So you can actually build them tougher, mentally tougher emotionally. Again, this is not sport. But this starts at the very beginning by understanding who you are. So in case you cross the line in in case you make the mistake, I am, sorry. And don’t do it again, change. That way. You just talk your son, daughter, the most important lesson, you make a mistake, you apologize, and you change. So if you can do it, you’re showing them that they can do it. And I think that is the most important thing. Let’s forget about sport doesn’t matter what you do in anything in life. That’s the way it happens. It’s kind of it’s kind of been my, you know, lighthouse, if you will, my my North Star.

It’s so interesting to hear you explain that because in doing the research on, you know, what made you decide to coach your daughter, you know, you’ve outlined the challenges going in. So why in the world would you want to take on something as massive as that and also what you talked about there just now really being in touch with your vulnerability, right? So being able to understand yourself first, I don’t know that most people think about that for five minutes. Never mind parents who decide to coach their children, but it is such an important point. So what was the point that made you decide, you know what, we have to do it, and we have to do it this way.

You know, honestly, it’s, it’s as simple and as innocent as as a simple promise that a father makes a daughter. You know, I look I had no intention for my daughter to be at the US Open. I had no intention of moving to Florida. I didn’t have the plan, I didn’t have like, I really didn’t, you know, I put my kids in different sports, my kids, because I wanted them to enjoy their childhood. And I didn’t want them to love something that I love just because I loved it. I wanted them to find themselves to find out what life is about, and, you know, life for me, what it’s about is trial and error. You know, how do you know what the food tastes like, if you’ve never tasted it? So I think that it’s, it’s a, it’s what got me into trouble. Because, because as people know, unfortunately, she got turned down from a program from a tennis program. And for the first time, I saw my daughter really, like, hurt by it, you know, and, you know, we’re just an average family, we were fine, we were living fine. I was like everybody else, and we had a mortgage, you know, two cars, right? I had a little business at the time, I was like, going, Okay, it looks like my want to work, I gotta have one of my daughters take over my, my business at some point, you know. So that’s that sound thinking is like, this is our forever home, right? You know, my kids to kind of go to school in Montreal, and then, you know, go off to work. And hopefully one day we’ll be close, is simple. But when she showed up, and she was crying in front of me, like, I was like, Oh, my God, and I am, and I’m not kidding, when I tell you that it is not a joke. When I read that she wasn’t on the on the team on the development team, I actually thought, great, we get our weekends back, you know, some more running around. So you know, and before that, you know, every Friday or sometimes Saturday, it was Movie Night, you know, as back in the day blockbuster, you know, was like, it was a whole like, you know, we all get together after dinner, it’s so much fun. And we want the kids run to the kids section. You know, my wife and I, we go into our section, you know, mystery, romantic, whatever, you know. And I missed that I missed the family together. And when when my kids and my wife took, you know, the famous vote around the table that they wanted to pursue tennis at a high level. I said, you know, you’re going to sacrifice, birthdays, you’re going to sacrifice holidays, you’re going to sacrifice time of us being together, you’re going to sacrifice friendships, you have no idea what it is that you’re asking. So to take a step back, it was never me wanting like my kids to become professional tennis players. Never. It was just a simple promise that I made to my daughter. And, and I always said, Look, if you’re going to say that you’re going to do something, and you can guarantee it, say, Look, I’m going to try my best. I’m with you, I got your back, I’m going all in. But I can’t guarantee that it’s going to go away. When when you say you say I promise, you better deliver. You know, we don’t have too many things in our lives that mean a lot. And we all get happy with, you know, the things that we can put a tangible value, you know, the houses, the cars, the jewelry, and that’s all fine and dandy. But for me personally, when you say I promise, there’s an intangible value that can shape the mind of somebody forever. So I made that mistake thinking that she was going to abandon the year or two years later. I mean, what are the odds that you take somebody that is 678 years old, and this happens, the numbers are not on your side. It’s simple. They’re not on your side. So that’s how that’s how it really happened. And because I said I promise, I never wanted to break my promise. It wasn’t about her becoming a pro and her making the money. I don’t I put zero value on money. I work really hard for money. And I love making money in just the same way that I love making money. I love spending. Okay, but just you know when Leylah signed a little sponsorship deal, right before her final And we were happy because it was the first time that she actually signed something a lot more significant than when we were having before. Right before, let’s put it in, in terms that are easy to understand it was helpful. Well, this is no longer helpful. And, you know, we just looked at each other and say, Oh, this is great. I said, Well, you know, and I’m there. I’m talking to my wife and talking to my two kids. And I said, because my older daughter, oldest daughter was in there. And this is, so if we can go back in time knowing that this is going to happen, would we still do it? You know, and they thought about it. He said, No, we wouldn’t do it. So think about that. So parents out there, think about what it is that you’re asking. You know, think about it. Really, really think about it, then I’m telling you, we just, you know, my daughter became millionaire overnight, and will probably become a multi millionaire. But we all agreed, we would go back in time and do it. Okay, because there’s a price to greet versus a price to a to all of this. And I’m not telling you that what we did was the incorrect thing. what I’m telling you is that the price that we paid made us think that maybe it was too great of a price. Are we happy? Yes, we are. Can we go back in time now it’s too late. Because every step of the way afterwards, I would always say, we’ve gone too far. And we got to keep going. So so it was just a simple promise. And I wouldn’t, you know, every year, I would always say I’ll give you more if you give me more. And that was kind of like always the thing, right? You know, why did I didn’t decide to move to Florida? Because it was the logical thing to do? No, no, no. She earned it. She gave me more. So okay, let’s do more. And it was only it wasn’t only her, it was also my youngest daughter, who’s an outstanding tennis player. You know, but everybody has their own path. You know, I was asking an interview not too long ago. You know? Like, you know, my youngest daughter, she’s not doing so well. How do you feel about that? And I looked at him and he said, Are you crazy? No, my daughter’s doing. She’s phenomenal. She’s doing fantastic. She’s an unbelievable player. Her path is like, incredible. What you’re getting confused, is that Layla is exceptional. It doesn’t happen often. She makes everybody else look really low. But they’re not. They’re actually they’re actually progressing very well as they should. But her she’s just exceptional results are just, you know, it’s not expected. It’s like an ddrescue is like Bouchard, it’s like, you know, Raghu, Kondo is just you don’t expect it and it’s happening. But those you can, you know, in one hand, right? And that’s, so they both did it. And that’s why we move move to Florida. So because I don’t want to be responsible for people saying, well, Fernandez said it and he did it. Now, I want you to really think about what it’s gonna cost you. And don’t think of money. It’s not what I’m telling. Anyway.

So listening to you recount that story, all I can think about is what a conversation that must have been around the dinner table, or wherever you had it with your, with all the women in your life, about the price that you’ve paid to get to where you’re at in your journey. So I want to talk a bit more about that sacrifice piece, because we often hear about it, especially with professional athletes. But the depth of what’s involved in that one word sacrifice is rarely ever painted as a picture that people can relate to. Because they only see the results they don’t see of blood, sweat and tears behind the scenes. So when you look back on it, and there are so many sacrifices that clearly your family has made that you know that’s been reported. What would you say has been was the biggest sacrifice that you made to get your daughter to where she’s at?

Well, I’m kind of a romantic, romantic, I have life in the universe. You know? And you know, I’m you know, I was raised in in a in a Catholic home and I myself You know, and practice practicing, you know, Catholic. But I believe that there’s something more powerful than us. I just kind of feel that some somehow the universe, and I believe in science and all of that great stuff. But I believe there’s something more powerful than that. So when you ask that question, and you’re asking a person that doesn’t put value on, on money, right? Like, look, the person that I had to become to my kids, it was horrible. Okay, because I just wanted to be a father. That’s it.

That’s what you signed up for.

Exactly. Right. That was that was the intentional one. unintentional one is the coaching, right? So what I sacrifice was a piece of my soul to become something they want to become for my kids. You know, so, and I think in turn, if that happened to me, they also must have sacrificed something. Right. And I think one day when we’re old, I think we’re all going to talk about it a little bit. So we can be okay with doing that sacrifice, you know, because when you step on that court, you have to be selfish, you have to be arrogant. You absolutely have to have a warrior mentality. You have to become a warrior. You have to be strong as steel. You can not be you got to be impenetrable. So how do you convert somebody into that by reading a book, or having a sports psychologist show up? Once a year? Man, you need at least a week with the smartest kid to learn the alphabet. That’s just repetition. So let’s put things into perspective. The people that we have to become to perform is not who we are. It’s just based on our value system, in our value system, is what makes us become these actors. Once we get off that, we’re different people. And that’s what I loved. That was the opportunity that I love. When I saw everybody get to know Layla who she of who she is, you know, so she plays tennis, like a warrior. She doesn’t abandon you know, and it’s funny, because growing up, I would always tell them is that, you know, girls, you know, your dad is not royalty. But he’s the knight. He’s the warrior. And he’ll give his life for the right King. So I feel that those stories somehow, you know, got into their, you know, their mindset and when their belief system and so when you see her on court, and you see her just battling to the end, you know, this kid could be losing, you know, 5050 love 40 down. I still wouldn’t bet against her. I’m just, I’m just telling you, it’s not a good bet. You know, just because of how much she’s willing to fight till the end. But that fight costs something. You know, and all I can tell you is that as long as she’s happy with what it costs her, then I’m okay with it. You know, I’m good with it. Personally, myself, you know, having to be more demanding having to say, look, it’s Monday, you know, we work hard on Mondays. You know, and I mean, we have volume work on Mondays, Mondays is our worst thing. Because it’s our first round. So I’m going to make sure that nobody beats us on Monday. They’re my little girls, man. Come on, wake up. Please don’t tell me do you know like, I know I had to be a jerk. I know and I apologize for it. But I always said you know a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more, because it was their dream. Now having said that, you can ask them Almost on a weekly basis, I would ask them if they still want to keep doing this. Okay, so what I am telling you if it wasn’t, you know that it was forcing them. Part of the fight was that, that I didn’t want them to continue, you know, in a, just their love for the sport. You know, you can see that Lila loves playing. You know, and sometimes some people would say, you know, well, maybe we should tone it down a little bit. Yeah, I agree we should, but we’ll look at them who hasn’t worked for your players? Yeah, how many? How many have you brought, and I’m talking to people that have had 2030 players a year, for the last 10 years on that one. So maybe what you’re doing isn’t working because you’re treating high performance athletes, like recreational athletes. And I’m treating a high performance athlete, like a high performance athlete. With demands, with consequences with learning opportunities, learning here, not hitting here, here. That’s a high performance athlete, recreational, it’s all here, have fun. Love it. With high performance, they’re gonna go through anxiety, they’re going to go through nerves, they’re going to go through fear, they’re going to go through, I hate this. hatred. So how do you prepare them? Right? And that’s the thing, I would always say, Well, if she ever quits, if my kids ever quit, number one, I’ll be happy. Number two, I’ll tell them. It just wasn’t meant to be for you. It’s okay, there’s no harm in that, we’ll find it. There’s other things to do in life. So I think as a parent, you have to look at that facility as a very real conclusion, and be okay with it. And then you let them surprise you, every day. And I’m telling you, I would ask my kids every week, do you still want to do this?

So and then, one thing I forgot to mention is obviously, you know, I’ve always found, you know, whatever money I had, I’ve always found resources to support me. You know, so I was never, you know, like I said before my previous statement, you know, I don’t know everything. So when I don’t know, I go find resources. Luckily, I come from a sport where you work with teams, teams that have, you know, coaches, right, support, maintenance teams, and stuff like that. So everybody always has a team. And that allows you to collaborate with people that allows you to pick their brain, and that allows you to analyze and come to conclusions. And I think, you know, that’s important than when you as a parent, start feeling lost, find the resources that you require to get you back on track. As, as long as you’re prepared for the How to have a fatality. I think you’re always going to make more better decisions and wrong decisions. And you’ll have a healthier relationship in this insane journey. Because you cannot think that being a top 10 player is the same objective. It’s not it’s really crazy. Okay, so you have the responsibility as a parent that’s trying to bring the resources to keep yourself in check. That way, you know, if you’re going down the right path or the wrong path, and I’ve always I mean, I almost quit. I went to Montreal. Sorry, to my girls, we’re now Yeah, program. I guess it’s a program, but just for the city, right? Like it was a city team. And I was so tired of it. Like I was so fed up. And you know, look, there’s favoritism, right. Like in tennis, there’s favoritism. Like there’s, there’s a whole slew of things that you have to manage outside of just being on the court. Okay, and it makes you feel horrible. So I was in one of those really low moments. And I remember that I was hitting when my youngest one we were just kind of, you know, coach, I was just with the basket hitting the ball and she was hitting. And there was a gentleman that came in and he started hearing me that I was speaking Spanish and I just happened to be in one of the first courts and Are you speak Spanish? So we started talking a little bit he was on man, your daughter’s like really good. I said, Hey, thank you, as I love what you’re saying, you know, you’re so right, that’s great. Don’t change that. I was like, Wow, good. Thank God, somebody agrees with me. All right, you know, so, long story short, I got to be friends with him. And then like, at one point, I said, you know, like, I’m ready to throw in the towel. Like, I just got way too many. It’s just too many challenges ahead of me. And I’m not even talking to you about the money challenge. Just too many to overcome, I just can’t do it because I don’t have one I have to write. When he looked at me, he was you know, most tennis parents would love to have just one of your daughters. Just want and you have to, don’t you easily have, if everything goes the way it should go. You easily have to top 30 players here. Now, of course, they thought he was insane. I go great. I’m attracting insane people. Right? There’s the universe talking back to me. But what what turned out to be is that, you know, I’m kind of like a follow signs a little bit, and his name and not gonna mention his name, but his name is the name of a saint who turned out to be my wife’s mom’s favorite saint. Okay, so pay attention. This is the guy who’s not a practicing Catholic, looking for signs from the universe, speaking to his wife about the insane person that he just met. That’s giving him advice on his daughters on this crazy journey. And it’s my wife’s mom’s fate, my mother in law. You know, she was passed away, rest in peace. And it was her favorite saint and I said, just like that. Alright, we’ll stick through.

“I had no intention for my daughter to be at the US Open,” Fernandez told Lianne Castelino during a revealing interview for Where Parents Talk.

“I had no intention of moving to Florida. I didn’t have the plan. I put my kids in different sports because I wanted them to enjoy their childhood,” says the former professional soccer player.

“She got turned down from a tennis program,” Fernandez continues from the family home in Boynton Beach, Florida. “For the first time, I saw my daughter really like hurt by it. When she showed up, and she was crying in front of me, I was like, oh my God. When I read that she wasn’t on the development team, I actually thought, great, we get our weekends back, you know, no more running around,” he says.

Temporary ‘euphoria’ quickly turned to reality and the desire to keep his word.

“When you say I promise, you better deliver,” he says.

A native of Ecuador, whose family immigrated to Canada — settling in Montreal —when he was five years old, Jorge Fernandez’ childhood was filled with examples of sacrifice, of blood, sweat and tears.

It would turn out to be a solid foundation for some of what he would come to experience as a father.

At the root — a new pact. This one involving the entire Fernandez family.

“When my kids and my wife took the famous vote around the table that they wanted to pursue tennis at a high level, I said, you know, you’re going to sacrifice, birthdays, you’re going to sacrifice holidays, you’re going to sacrifice time with us being together, you’re going to sacrifice friendships, you have no idea what it is that you’re asking,” recounts Fernandez. “So to take a step back, it was never me wanting like my kids to become professional tennis players. Never. It was just a simple promise that I made to my daughter.”

As he outlined, the sacrifices made involved every member of the Fernandez family.

It included having his wife Irene relocate to the United States for two years for a better job. Jorge was left in Montreal, operating as an unofficial single father, taking care of his three girls by himself — all with the goal of helping Leylah continue to chase her tennis dream.

During Part 1 of his interview with Where Parents Talk, Jorge Fernandez also discusses:

  • His approach as both father and coach
  • Advice for parents of athletes
  • Building mental toughness in a young athlete
  • His childhood
  • Influential women in his life
  • Raising girls today
  • Why he describes daughter Leylah as, “an overnight success, brewing for 10 years”

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