Sensational 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez stands at 5’ 6’’ 104 lbs (168 cm 47 kg). Her opponent in the 4th round of the 2021 US Open was former grand slam champion Angelique Kerber, standing at 5’ 8’’ 150 lbs (173 cm 68 kg).
If I told you that the svelte 18-year-old had gotten the better of her bigger, stronger, more experienced counterpart, you’d probably imagine a match where Leylah moved quickly, played solid defense, put balls back in play, and outlasted her veteran opponent.
But that isn’t what happened at all.
The teenager hit Angelique Kerber off the court on Sunday. How is that possible, given that Angelique Kerber was the bigger, taller, stronger, and more experienced player?
What makes Leylah Fernandez so good?
We’ll start with the skill that underpins the rest of Leylah’s game: her extremely fault tolerant forehand (though her movement and anticipation are also world class).
After that, we’ll discuss the tactics she uses to routinely hit bigger, taller, stronger women off the court, which are only possible because her forehand is so fault tolerant:
- Leylah takes the ball extremely early.
- Leylah changes direction and aims to big targets.
- Leylah finishes her points with swinging volleys.
Leylah’s Fault Tolerant Forehand
In order to win in pro tennis, you need at least one weapon. Leylah’s is her forehand. She has flawlessly implemented all of the core principles we espouse here so frequently at Fault Tolerant Tennis.
First, Leylah uses a very abbreviated “backswing.” Her arm preparation constitutes nothing more than the necessary motion in order to prepare her hand for the forward explosion. She turns her hips and chest away from her target, she extends her elbow, and she lowers her hand. That’s it. No extra looping, no extra motion.
Next, Leylah drives with her hips, followed by her abs. She doesn’t attempt to accelerate the racket with the weak muscles of her arm, forearm, or wrist, and instead drives forward with the strongest muscles in her (tiny) body. This is how she hits so hard, despite only weighting 104 lbs (47 kg).
Leylah and Roger’s Unit Swing
Despite being a talented lefty capable of utilizing heavy topspin, Leylah Fernandez employs a forehand technique that is actually far more similar to Roger Federer’s than it is to Rafael Nadal’s.
Leylah uses a very compact swing, with less arm movement during the backswing, and therefore less arm whip during the forward swing, than Rafa does.
Both her and Roger’s compact forehands exemplify the “Unit Turn, Unit Swing” idea that’s so critical to an effective, fault tolerant stroke. From The Fault Tolerant Forehand:
Ultimately, your goal during abdominal rotation on the forward swing is to learn what it feels like to rotate your entire upper body – your chest and both arms – forward together as a single unit, just like you rotated them backward as a single unit during the unit turn. This rotation will be explosive, stable, and effective. You won’t have arms flailing this way and that, and the rotation will be driven by the strong, stable abdominal muscles in your core. It’s a rotation that can be performed extremely explosively and extremely quickly without injury, unlike, say, pulling the racket forward using the hand and arm.The Fault Tolerant Forehand. “Unit Turn, Unit Swing.” Page 91.
In general, the more stable and compact a player’s execution of the unit swing, the earlier they’re able to take the ball without missing. Roger and Leylah are able to play the hyper-aggressive style they play only because their technique is such that they can create consistent, correct contact out of very novel positions. Since all they require to produce their stroke is a quick, compact, stable core rotation, Roger and Leylah can improvise out of positions out of which other players simply can’t.
Leylah’s Fault Tolerant Contact
Leylah is essentially square to her target by contact. At this point, she’s fully unwound both her hips and her abs, and all of that energy has been transferred into the racket.
She’s achieved the perfect fault tolerant contact position: the position depicted on the left, in which she has ample freedom for adjustment. If she were to accidentally set up too close to this ball, she could adjust by pulling her arm in toward her chest, and she’d hit roughly the same shot. If she’d swung too early, she could lean her torso forward, and maintain roughly the same arm-racket-string orientation.
Probably most importantly, this stroke works even when she’s a little late. She still accelerates the racket with her core, and she still relaxes her hand, but if this ball were a few inches farther back as she’s hitting it, she’d simply follow-through over her head instead of in front of her, and in doing so create roughly the same racket path through contact as on a perfectly timed shot.
Leylah’s Deadly Tactics
The fault tolerance of Leylah’s forehand allows her to play the game in a fundamentally more aggressive way than players with lesser strokes are able to. Because she’s able to strike the ball properly even when things don’t go perfectly, she can attempt shots that, for most players, are too difficult. Specifically, she can take the ball far earlier than other players, she can change the ball’s direction consistently, and she can sprint to net and hit swinging volleys to finish her points.
When a typical player tries to play like Leylah plays, they miss too much, because the shots that Leylah attempts are almost impossible to execute perfectly. Leylah, on the other hand, can use those shots in matches, because her stroke is designed in such a way as to succeed even when executed imperfectly. We’ve explained the mechanics that create this fault tolerance above. Now we’re going to explain the tactical ways by which Leylah exploits it.
1. Leylah takes the ball extremely early.
How can a 105 lb girl hit winners against some of the fastest, most athletic women in the world? Answer: she takes the ball so early that they don’t have time to react. What matters on a tennis court is the time between the moment your shot leaves your racket, and the moment your opponent must hit it back. You can decrease this time by either hitting harder, or by reducing the distance between you and your opponent when you strike the ball.
Hitting early is extremely difficult. The ball is moving faster as you strike it, decreasing the size of your timing window. You’re hitting the ball soon after it bounces, giving you far less time to react to that bounce. Often, the ball is rising, meaning you need a different string angle to make the shot work. You have less time to track the ball, less time to move, less time to prepare, etc.
The result is that you’ll rarely contact a ball you take early exactly how you expected to. In order to succeed when taking the ball early, your stroke must be fault tolerant. Leylah’s is, and due to that she can take the ball early five times in a row without missing, despite the fact that each of those attempts probably included some small mistake in timing or preparation.
2. Leylah changes direction and hits to big targets.
Another very difficult task is to change the direction of the ball. Leylah does this constantly. Again, it’s very difficult to space this shot properly, and it’s very difficult to time this shot properly. Because Leylah’s forehand is fault tolerant, she can attempt these shots without missing.
Very importantly, she doesn’t try to hit winners right away when she changes direction. Instead, she aims to big targets, high over the net. Actually, during the first set against Angelique Kerber (which she lost), and parts of the second set where she lost serve, Leylah was not aiming to good targets, and the result was an unsustainable miss rate. Once she started aiming farther from the lines and higher over the net, she stopped randomly missing out of neutral and actually ended up hitting more winners, because she wasn’t unnecessarily knocking herself out of so many points right at the start.
Leylah takes the ball so early and disguises the direction of her shots so well that there’s no need for her to force the issue out of neutral. Eventually, she’ll catch her opponent leaning the wrong way on one of her neutral balls, and she’ll get a super weak reply. Which brings us to her final primary tactic…
3. Leylah finishes her points with swinging volleys.
If you can’t hit a swinging volley, there are points that you simply cannot win. Your opponent can throw up deep lobs over the middle as defensive shots, and your only option is to take the point back to neutral. On the other hand, if you can hit a swinging volley, these points are all but over – if you execute your shot, you’re going to win the point.
Just like the early forehand or the change-of-direction forehand, the swinging volley forehand is extremely difficult. You yourself are moving, likely sprinting forward, and the ball is moving extremely quickly, since it hasn’t even bounced yet. Further, the ball likely has far more vertical velocity than it does on a typical baseline shot.
Without a fundamentally sound, fault tolerant forehand, swinging volleys are all but impossible. Even at the tour level, only a few players (like Roger Federer and Leylah Fernandez, to name a few) have really integrated them as a core part of their game.
The instant Leylah realizes that one of her well disguised groundstrokes has gotten her opponent on the defensive, she’s looking to attack. Often, it’s clear that the opponent’s only option is a defensive, floaty shot. When this is the case, Leylah sprints to net. While that defensive shot is in the air, Leylah continues sprinting. She gets as far in as she can and then takes a very compact forehand swing at the ball while it’s still in mid-air. The result is that her opponent is out of position, the court is open, and Leylah gets to hit the ball from so close to her opponent that they have barely any time to react.
Leylah Fernandez and the Modern Game
The younger generation of WTA players are bringing the hyper-modern forehand to the women’s game like never before. Players like Layla Fernandez, Iga Swiatek, Jen Brady, and ultimate champion Emma Raducanu all utilize primarily explosive core rotation to accelerate their forehands, and as a result, these girls can do things consistently that their older, more traditional counterparts simply can’t do.
It’s extremely fun to watch, and I’m excited to see these girls dominate for years to come.
September 17, 2021
Interesting article with great insights on shot making.
These women are exciting to watch!
December 21, 2021
The short backswing and compact stroke are such great techniques I am trying to copy!!! The swinging volley/ground stroke “out of the air” is a powerful weapon I am going to add to my arsenal!!!
December 21, 2021
Awesome! Definitely great to add – it’s night and day when playing against good defensive players.