While Canadian sensation Leylah Fernandez is proud to represent the Philippines at the ongoing Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the UAE’s Filipino expat community is even more proud to claim the 20-year-old as one of its own.
Just ask the Pinoy Tennis Enthusiasts Group (Pinteg), which distributed 300 tickets for Fernandez’s first match and were still receiving requests right up until the pregame coin toss.
Fernandez, a Montreal native whose mother Irene was born in Canada to Pinoy parents and whose father Jorge was born in Ecuador, is making her first appearance in Dubai. On Sunday, throngs of Filipino fans braved a chilly Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium for her opening victory against Julia Grabher and it was a similar story for Tuesday’s second round defeat to World No.1 Iga Swiatek under the floodlights.
Although Fernandez was beaten comfortably by the tournament’s top seed, she remains active in the emirate, progressing in Doubles alongside the USA’s Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
“I’m super happy to be here for the very first time in Dubai,” said Fernandez, who revealed her lolo – the Tagalog word for grandfather – cooks Filipino food, including her favourite adobo. “I’ve played in Abu Dhabi and Doha too and always felt great support from fellow Canadians, Filipinos and even some South Americans. I’m proud to be representing all three nations; it is amazing and gives me more motivation. We definitely can’t complain about the atmosphere in Dubai.”
This afternoon, once again in front of a Filipino-heavy crowd watching from the shade-free stands facing Court Three, Fernandez and Mattek-Sands booked a place in Thursday’s quarter-finals with a stout-hearted 3-6, 6-1, 13-11 comeback win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich and Yifan Xu – much to the delight of her fans who roared when the match tiebreak was sealed. The pair will now face Liudmila Samsonova and Veronika Kudermetova on Thursday.
Wearing a green fishing hat to protect himself from the afternoon sun, Mindanao-born Hannibal Honculada was among a group of Filipinos respectfully cheering on Fernandez. Regarding himself as a “big fan”, he also travelled to Abu Dhabi earlier this month to show his support.
“All the Filipinos here are supporting Leylah – there are too many of us!” he said smiling. “We are all so happy to have her here with us in Dubai for the first time. I’ve been following her career since she reached the final of the US Open in 2021 and I was so excited when I heard she was coming. Now, I just hope she comes every year, so we can watch her again.”
Pinteg, which was founded roughly 10 years ago, has recorded a sharp increase in interest since Fernandez’s surprise run to the final at Flushing Meadows in 2021, where she eventually lost to Emma Raducanu. “I joke that we are addicted to tennis,” said Cedric Albao, the Pinteg president. “We have a public court in Al Qusais and it’s not unusual now to see Filipinos arriving at 5am to play, and we still have people on court at midnight. It has not always been like this. When we found out Leylah was coming, everyone was telling me we need to go watch her and show our support.”
Janice Eulilan, a Cebu-born tennis coach based in Damac Hills, is one such fan who has come out to cheer on Fernandez. “Leylah is very inspiring for us Filipinos,” she said. “In the Philippines, tennis is not so accessible and we don’t get much support or chances to excel in sports internationally. For that reason, even if Leylah is Canadian, we were always going to claim her as one of our own!”