From Humble Beginnings:
October 25, 2019
When one thinks of the hotbed of American tennis, Gaylord, Michigan is probably as far from the mind as can be. Though Gaylord has seen major improvements to their tennis community in recent years and thanks to many dedicated individuals, this was not always the case.
Rewind to the year 2013. Coach Dave Johnson and his wife Kathy had recently moved to Gaylord and started a new tennis program, not sure if there would be any interest at all. As the first eager players began to trickle in, Johnson noticed a young junior in his clinic whom he could not ignore. That junior was Michael Fernandez, who in 2019 would eventually elevate to be the number one rising freshman player in the nation and the number five overall rising player in the nation for high school aged players.
Though neither of Michael’s parents, Mike or Denise, played tennis themselves, Denise was well aware of the athleticism of both of her sons. ADVERTISEMENT So, tennis began as just another sport that her boys, Michael and Nicholas, could try.
At just eight years old, Michael was already showing an aptitude for the sport, which Johnson realized. In addition to the clinic the Fernandez boys were enrolled in, Johnson began giving Michael extra instruction. He saw that Michael would learn new skills and technique extremely quickly, and the love of the game was only growing stronger during the short outdoor tennis season in northern Michigan.
Johnson then encouraged Mike and Denise to seek higher level training for Michael, seeing the possibilities in the junior’s future.
“If it were not for Dave and Kathy, it could have been a lot of sports, but tennis was the sport that Dave and Kathy were passionate about,” said Mike Fernandez. “Because of that, our boys came home after experiencing a new sport for the very first time and they were hooked thanks to Dave and Kathy’s passion for the game of tennis.
“As parents of two young boys, we have seen all sorts of sports programs and most especially tennis programs, but there is one thing that sets some apart from others, and that’s the passion the coaches have for the sport and the kids, and Dave instilled that passion and respect for the game in both of our boys.”
Taking the word of Johnson very seriously, the Fernandez family decided to make a professional move to California to, in part, provide the best opportunities for their children and to potentially allow for Michael’s tennis game to continue to grow.
But in early 2015, just after moving to California, Michael’s father suffered a serious accident which would change the lives of each Fernandez family member. To help himself work through some of the challenges as a result of his father’s accident, Michael immersed himself into his tennis and training like never before.
Michael was introduced to some of the best players in American tennis as he became accustomed to California and got his first real taste of the competition he would be stacked against moving forward. It was only more fuel for the fire as his training increased in intensity, competition grew to the regional and national level and became part of Michael’s regular routine.
Time passed, and as the family began to learn how to live this new life both on and off the tennis court, it was again time to hit the pause button and evaluate the next steps for their family and Michael’s tennis development. In California, Michael’s training had hit a plateau of sorts. He was confined to only training for a few hours each day after school, which was just not enough. It was time for another move, and the Fernandez family now calls Miami home.
Michael is now training full time in Miami with world-renowned tennis coach Cesar Castaneda with school now in the form of home-schooling. Castaneda spends a considerable amount of time with Michael each day, not only encouraging his growth as a tennis player, but also as a young man.
“Michael comes from a very humble family where they encourage him to have fun and only want what is best for him,” said Castaneda. “They want him to develop as a human being and then an athlete, rather than focusing on results.”
Castaneda has coached some of the top players in the world, including Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic during his time with IMG and Team Canada and knows what it takes to break through on the pro tour. When Castaneda first met Michael, he saw the same fire and hunger in him as some of the other elite players he has worked with.
To date, Michael has worked his way up to four-star recruit status while also experiencing success in tournaments played around the world. One such accomplishment of note was playing in a USTA Men’s Tennis Open circuit event in August and winning the back draw as the youngest player in the field.
Though Michael is only 14 years old, the progression to higher level competitive tennis has allowed him to mature both on and off the court. In his parents’ opinion, this sense of mental toughness and perseverance has only propelled him forward and will be a benefit to him now and well into the future.
“Tennis is an individual sport and it certainly teaches you how to figure stuff out on your own,” said Mike Fernandez. “In junior tennis in the United States and also in ITF (International Tennis Federation) tournaments around the world, you don’t have on-court coaching, so it’s really left to the player to figure stuff out on their own.
“So, with Michael, he has had the opportunity most of his competitive career to play up in age groups and is primarily now playing in men’s opens and ITF tournaments.”
Castaneda is hopeful that as Michael’s training and development progresses and he continues to mature, he will be able to break into the top 100 in the world.
“He’s a kid who has great values; he’s a kid who is hungry to improve; he’s a kid who has really high goals and knows exactly where he wants to be,” said Castaneda.
But for Michael, a young man who many to this day find it hard to believe started his impressive tennis journey thus far in Gaylord, Michigan, the fight to reach the top is ongoing. To the definition of a true grassroots tennis product, it’s just one match at a time.
“Whenever I’m on the court, the fences are the perimeters and it’s my comfort zone,” said Michael. “I just focus on everything that is happening on the court; I just play the ball and don’t focus on who I am playing, it’s just another day on a tennis court playing the yellow ball.
"It’s the best feeling in the world!”