Opinion | Leylah Fernández advances to the US Open with his attitude of never giving up

NEW YORK – A 106 mph wide ace. An unrecoverable service of 114 mph. A winner in 108 mph service. An unrecoverable 106 mph service to the body.

That was the first game of the women’s semifinal at the US Open, Aryna Sabalenka showed Leylah Fernández what she has.

She broke Fernandez in the second game, rushing to a 3-0 lead.

So the wind blew at Arthur Ashe Stadium and it felt like a storm from the northeast, the Belarusian about to consume the Canadian.

But the Montreal teenager won the match, in a valiant comeback, breaking with what has quickly become characteristic tactical cunning, excellent ball placement and a recovery instinct, impressive groundstrokes on the line. He made passing shots and soaked up the worst of the barrage Sabalenka was able to throw at him, especially once his opponent began to shake and hesitate, stopping at what had been an overwhelmingly powerful first serve that scored seven straight points to start the match. Fernandez began to revel in Sabalenka’s terribly weak second serve, an Achilles heel for the 23-year-old.

I start here with the best and worst of Fernández, on Thursday night, because he was on the ropes early. But the steam head, the currents of will that the teenager has shown for almost a fortnight, leaves a lot to choose from.

From three on a hole early on to a dominant tiebreaker, because he just doesn’t lose tiebreaks, going through a lost second set to a total breakdown by Sabalenka at a match point for Fernandez – he double-faulted twice in that 10th game, no just blinking under pressure but hitting her eyes, nervous and shaking, then throwing a long forehand and, after two hours and 20 minutes, finished more emphatically: 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6 -4.

Fernández knelt down and screamed.

On Saturday, this teenager will play for a Grand Slam title.

In Sabalenka, Fernández took the No. 2 in the world. She eliminated No. 3 Naomi Osaka. He took out number 5, Elina Svitolina. She eliminated former No. 1 and former US Open champion Angelique Kerber.

Leylah Fernández looked like they were going to take her out of New York in the first set.  Instead, he's in the final of the US Open.

She’s ranked 73rd in the world, for God’s sake, although she’ll be in the top 50 when the new rankings come out, whether or not she has a senior trophy in her portfolio.

In the process, Fernandez has enchanted a city, captivated the tennis universe, and definitely turned Slam to bone.

Even Magic Johnson, who knows something about legendary status, tweeted the other day: “If you haven’t seen the most exciting player at the US Open, 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, you are really missing out.”

“I’d say thank you to the New York crowd,” Fernandez responded in his on-court interview immediately thereafter, when asked how he had pulled off this match, particularly Sabalenka’s match point. “They never gave up on me. Thanks to you, I was able to win. So thank you New York. “

You know, you really have to love Americans for loving Canadians so easily, when we are often very reluctantly.

This is a mentally strong teenager, who agrees with such an accomplished game, given her tender year.

“They are years and years and years of hard work and tears and blood, everything, on and off the court, sacrifice. I just wanted to be in the final, I really wanted it and I fought for every point. I don’t know how I got to that last point, but I’m glad it did. And I’m glad to be in the final. “

Well I guess so.

It was a crushing loss for Sabalenka, who had progressed into a draw much easier than Fernandez. She could have taken a toll on the match in that first set before it slipped through her fingers. The less fatigued of the two girls also appeared, certainly in the middle and beginning of the third. Sabalenka is bigger, stronger, he certainly possesses a lethal weapon in his service.

Fernández blunted everything.

In his players’ box, Steve Nash, another Canadian, was ecstatic along with Fernández’s mother and younger sister. Papa Jorge, a former soccer pro, had finally made it to New York after staying away, staying in Florida, but he couldn’t miss this, even though he wasn’t seen in the stands at full capacity.

Fernandez recited just a few of the off-court highlights of his tremendous rise throughout this tournament. “I got to meet Billie Jean King, I got to meet Juan Martin del Potro, Steve Nash is in my box, thanks for coming!”

Nash, whom Jorge Fernández had introduced to his daughter as an example of competitiveness, a role model and inspiration. “I remember when my father used him as an example once for a whole month, telling us (her and her sister) that we have to fight, that we have to work hard, just like Steve Nash.”

Looking up at him, she said, “It’s an honor to have you here, looking at me and cheering me on.”

What a balanced and charming young woman! Even in moments of silence, it is affective.

It was a terrific match, a fun back-and-forth affair in which both players turned to the crowd, arms raised to cheer after a flamboyantly played point or a big winner. But this crowd was so loudly on the Canadian’s side; it must have been disheartening for the Belarusian. Although not so disheartening, surely, like 52 unforced errors compared to 45 winners. Fernandez had fewer unforced errors than the winners, at 23. Crucially, he saved seven of 11 break points, countering Sabalenka’s powerful serve with relentless speed, shooting accuracy and extending rallies beyond the break point.

Sabalenka, although he has improved tremendously on the tour, has yet to win a Slam. His reputation for clutch tremors stuck with him tonight: eight double faults to nine aces, 4-of-7 in break opportunities and a measly 55 percent in second-serve points.

No player in Queens has had a tournament to rival Fernandez’s, as she pushed aside the closest-tying opposition, starting with defending champion Osaka, after superficial wins over Ana Konjuh and Kaia Kanepi in the first two rounds. The marquee victories have been piling up as the left-hander adapted his game against everyone he faced. His tactical versatility is astonishing. And he used the crowd to his advantage at every turn.

She can throw away, she can explode.

What a Slam it has been so far for Canada, with Fernandez in the final and Felix Auger-Aliassime battling for the same watermark in his career Friday against World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev. Not so suddenly, tennis has become the sport for a country of snow and ice.

Since Wimbledon 2014, Canadians have played half a dozen Slam finals: Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov, Eugenie Bouchard, Auger-Aliassime, Fernández and, of course, Bianca Andreescu, who claimed the US Open title two years ago, also as a teenager.

No other country has had six “unique” Grand Slam semifinals.

But Fernández is extraordinarily unique in her own way.

She will play the winner of Thursday night’s match, be it Toronto-born British Emma Raducanu, the 18-year-old who has been through the tournament or Maria Sakkari of Greece.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for The Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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