Photo : Camera Works USA
Leylah Fernandez may only be 18 years old, but she already has the composure of a veteran, a lesson Naomi Osaka learned the hard way on Friday night at the US Open.
The Canadian teen scored the biggest win of her career to date under the lights on Arthur Ashe, upsetting the defending champion in a three-set epic.
She is now through to the fourth round of a major for the first time in her career.
Fernandez trailed by a set and a break and was one game away from defeat at 5-6 in the second set with her opponent serving, but the Canadian showed maturity beyond her years, rallying for an epic 5-7, 7-6(1), 6-4 victory.
Osaka pounded 37 winners, but also committed 36 unforced errors. Fernandez was the more consistent of the pair, with 28 winners to just 24 unforced errors. The Canadian might only stand at 5’6”, but she served like a much taller woman, putting 80 percent of her first-serve points in play and winning 78 percent of them.
Despite Osaka’s overwhelming experience advantage, Fernandez looked completely comfortable in the spotlight as the pair duked it out on Arthur Ashe. The Canadian managed to hang with the four-time major champion through most of the opening set, matching Osaka shot for shot.
As the set progressed, however, the third seed began to find her range and started controlling the rallies. At 5-all, she overwhelmed Fernandez with some huge hitting and broke to love. Osaka then closed out the set with a hold to love, finishing on a nine-point run.
The second set followed a similar script as the first, with both women holding serve comfortably through the first ten games. Just like the first set, Osaka made her move at 5-all, going up love-40 on the Canadian’s serve and ultimately clinching the break with a dramatic backhand up the line.
This time, the script deviated, as Fernandez mounted one last stand, reaching break point for the first time in the match and converting to reclaim the break and sending the set to a tiebreak.
Osaka missed four straight forehands early in the tiebreak, two on her own serve, as Fernandez raced ahead 5-0. A fifth gave the Canadian five sets points at 6-1 and a sixth handed Fernandez the breaker, sending the match to a final set.
Suddenly, the momentum was firmly behind the Canadian teen. In the opening game of the decider, Fernandez drew an error with an aggressive return to grab an immediate break of serve.
If Fernandez was feeling any nerves, she didn’t show it. The teen refused to drop her level after getting the break and never gave Osaka a chance to get back into the match.
The Canadian hung on for the entire third set, never facing a break point, and closing out the match with a hold to love.
Fernandez will have to take out another former US Open champion if she hopes to reach her first Grand Slam quarter-final, as 2016 champion Angelique Kerber awaits in the last sixteen.
AUGER-ALIASSIME SURVIVES IN FIVE
For the third time in four Grand Slams in 2021, Félix Auger-Aliassime found himself in a fifth set after blowing a two-set lead.
But just like he did at Wimbledon, the 21-year-old managed to pull himself together late and escaping with a five-set win, this time edging Roberto Bautista Agut 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 victory.
It was no secret that Auger-Aliassime would be the aggressor in the match and it showed as he hit 76 winners, including 27 aces, but also committed 74 unforced errors. His first serve was a key difference maker, as he won 82 percent of his first serve points, including several as he rallied from love-30 down serving out the match.
He will now look to improve on his 2020 performance in New York, where he lost in the fourth round to the eventual champion Dominic Thiem.
Early on, the Canadian made a point of coming to the net often in the early stages and hit a clean volley winner to set up an early break point, which he was gifted when Bautista Agut sent a routine shot long. The aggressive tactics continued to pay off as Auger-Aliassime hung on to that one break to take the opening set.
He stayed closer to the baseline in the second set, but eventually the Spaniard cracked under the 12th seed’s relentless assault as Auger-Aliassime turned defence into offence at the end of a long rally and ripped a forehand winner to break for a 5-4 lead. He then held to love to take a two-set lead.
Auger-Aliassime looked well on his way to victory when he broke early in the third set, but Bautista Agut was not going away quietly, breaking right back. The Spaniard then broke again as the 12th seed served to stay in the set at 4-5, sending the match to a fourth set.
The fourth went in a similar way as the third, with Auger-Aliassime surrendering a late break to drop the set to send the match to a decider.
Looking to avoid a repeat of his heartbreaking loss in Melbourne earlier this year, the Canadian got off to a better start in the fifth set, breaking Bautista Agut early and quickly holding for a 4-1 lead.
Despite a few close calls, Auger-Aliassime managed to hang on to his serve for the remainder of the set, wrapping up the win in just under four hours.
Auger-Aliassime will look to reach his second career major quarter-final, and second in a row after reaching the last eight at Wimbledon, when he takes on either fifth seed Andrey Rublev or home-favourite Frances Tiafoe.