Leylah Fernandez crumbled to the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium. She held her face in her hands for a couple of seconds, then she pumped her fists for probably the 100th time on the biggest night of her life.
The 19-year-old from Montreal raised those fists in the air and she looked up at her sister and her mom in the crowd, with tears in her eyes. She did it. Fernandez has advanced to the US Open final, on the biggest stage in tennis.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she said, still grinning, a couple hours after she took down the world No. 2, Aryna Sabalenka, in a 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 semifinal on Thursday night.
It’s safe to say Fernandez wasn’t alone in that disbelief. The diminutive-sized lefty with the outrageously large-sized poise, the one who came into the US Open relatively unknown and ranked 73rd in the world, is going to try to put a cherry on top of her unbelievable run and win the whole thing on Saturday.
And just how did she earn the chance? As she said on court Thursday, seconds after a Sabalenka shot sailed long, giving her the win: “I have no idea.” Then she thanked the crowd and New York, and they roared for her yet again.
Later, nearly two hours after her match, wearing a maroon zip-up sweater, Fernandez had time to think about what she’d achieved and how to describe it. “I think one word that really stuck to me is ‘magical,’ because not only is my run really good, but also the way I’m playing right now. I’m just having fun, I’m trying to produce something of the crowd to enjoy,” she said. “I’m glad that whatever I’m doing on the court, the fans are loving it and I’m loving it, too. We’ll say it’s magical.”
Leylah Fernandez reacts after defeating Aryna Sabalenka. (Seth Wenig/AP)
In the very early goings on Thursday, it did look as though Fernandez’s magic might run out. Right out of the gate, the five-foot-11 Sabalenka absolutely overpowered Fernandez, who’s five-foot-six according to her WTA profile, and five-foot-four according to broadcasters. The Belarusian crushed her groundstrokes, clocked 117-m.p.h. aces and broke Fernandez’s serve on her first opportunity. The Canadian won just two points in the first three games, and she was down 1-4 in the first set.
But as Sabalenka started to make errors — she made 52 unforced errors in all, which proved to be her undoing — Fernandez battled back. She not only took advantage of those mistakes, but she used Sabalenka’s power, absorbed it and fired it back. She took risks. She fired winners at tight angles, finessed in perfect little drop shots, and attacked Sabalenka’s second serve.
“She started incredibly well in the beginning, but I’m just glad I was able to stay patient, fight for every point,” Fernandez said. “We went till the end. I was glad I was able to put that one more ball back in.”
This incredible run Fernandez is authoring was seen coming by almost nobody. “I’m somewhat surprised,” Canada’s national team coach, Sylvain Bruneau, admitted. “To arrive at a Grand Slam and string the wins that she has all together, the way she did it, which is pretty spectacular, the kind of tennis she’s playing, is incredible. It’s very impressive from an 18-, now 19-year-old, to be able to do so.”
To recap: Spectacular, incredible, impressive. Fernandez has been all of it.
She won her first WTA singles title earlier this season in Mexico, but Bruneau has seen a major shift in her confidence since her win earlier in this tournament against defending champion Naomi Osaka. “I think it was kind of an awakening or something for her, and we saw that after when she played [Angelique] Kerber and [Elina] Svitolina,” Bruneau said. “I think because of that win her confidence is really, really at another level.”
Certainly the fans in New York have only helped that confidence grow, having adopted Fernandez as the fan favourite.
“I was actually surprised by how Leylah, who’s very shy and sweet off the court, went out there and used the crowd and did not waver under the spotlight, how she managed to get all of them on her side,” Bruneau said. “When you see that little girl go out on the court against those bigger, older opponents that are ranked, the crowd is just going to root for her.”
They sure are: Some wore hockey jerseys, but the best-dressed award Thursday went to two guys in white t-shirts, one that read “LAY” and the other that said “LAH,” in red magic marker. Brilliant and stylish.
“She’s very feisty, she’s very determined,” Bruneau said. “But the fist pumps, using the crowd, I’ve never seen her do that kind of thing.”
Add that to the list of things nobody’s ever seen Fernandez do.
Former Canadian pro Patricia Hy-Boulais is a good friend of the Fernandez family, and she first met a 14-year-old Fernandez just after Fernandez beat Isabelle, Hy-Boulais’ daughter. “When you’re in Canada, you pretty much know everybody [in the tennis world], but she was just out of the blue and came out and I was like, ‘Who is this player?’” Hy-Boulais said. “She definitely got my attention.”
But Fernandez didn’t get everybody’s attention as a youngster. “She is missing maybe six inches on her, she’s missing 50 pounds on her. But you make up what you don’t have, and that’s what stood out to me,” Hy-Boulais said. “Her ability to stay on that baseline and time those balls and take the ball early — that’s what caught my eye. She refused to give up space, she refused to be pushed back by power. And it’s a very difficult thing to do. You have to have some major skills. But because of her size, a lot of people wrote her off.”
After the biggest win of her life, Fernandez said, “a lot of people doubted me, my family and my dreams. They kept saying, no, that I’m not going to be a professional tennis player, that I should stop and just pursue going to school.”
That only served as motivation, and so too did the fact her family sacrificed for her dream. Her mother moved to California for a couple of years to support the family, and Fernandez barely saw her while she lived and trained and went to school in Laval, Que. “Those few years were definitely hard for me because I needed a mom, I needed someone to be there for me through the age of 10 to 13,” Fernandez said. “But every time that I was on court when I was younger, when that happened, I had that focus, that mentality saying that I’m going to do everything in my power to achieve my dreams, to be closer to my dreams so that we can be together again.” The family reunited in California when she was 13.
Hy-Boulais also credits Fernandez’s dad and coach, Jorge, a former professional soccer player, for making the commitment to see his daughter fulfill her potential on the court. “His whole philosophy really is that both feet are either in or out, you cannot have one foot in and one foot out,” she said. “And it’s not about being comfortable. I watched them train together, we’d see them at tournaments. By the time she came to play big tournaments, she was ready to take everyone down. Just like she is now.”
On Thursday night, Fernandez sat in her court-side seat with her eyes closed, taking deep breaths and tapping her toes while she focused on her next game. Sabalenka, on the other hand, grew so frustrated with her play that during a break in the second set, she smashed her racquet. She double-faulted twice in the third set to give Fernandez three shots at match point, and the Canadian made good on her first chance.
After the match, a disappointed Sabalenka nailed it perfectly: “Everything is going her way,” she said.
Leylah Fernandez celebrates during her match against Aryna Sabalenka. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Veteran national team player Sharon Fichman last played with Fernandez at the Billie Jean King Cup earlier this season, and she says the biggest difference between then and now is Fernandez is taking more chances.
“She’s playing with a lot more courage and a lot more guts in terms of her targets and the types of shots she’s trying to execute,” Fichman said. “Amazing and incredible things only happen when you go for it, they’re not going to be handed to you and that’s the type of tennis she needs to be playing and you can see that she’s doing that, she’s playing a lot more free.
“She’s on such an amazing run and you can’t help but smile and be happy for her. She’s such a wonderful person. I just hope she keeps going, and I know she’s going to go on to do great things.”
Fichman has an idea of how Fernandez will celebrate when this tournament is all over, too: With a giant glass of freshly-squeezed OJ.
“The one thing people might now know about her — she loves orange juice,” Fichman said. “That girl is obsessed. She would drink eight cups a day if she wasn’t rationed [laughs]. Honestly, nobody likes orange juice more than her.”
On Saturday, Fernandez will play in the US Open final against another teenager, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu, of Great Britain, who was born in Toronto. Fernandez is guaranteed a $1.25-million payday, so she can buy plenty of fresh OJ.
Her run isn’t over yet, but Fernandez has learned plenty about herself and her game in these last few days.
“I believed in my game, but it also has helped me open my eyes that I have no limit to my potential, that I can go three sets against these players, I can play against these top players, and I can win against these top players.” she said. “I’m just extremely happy with what I’ve achieved this week. Off court I’m just enjoying every minute of it.”
It’s safe to say the rest of Canada is, too.