And so does Félix.
The Friday night lights shined brightly on two young Canadians in the third round at the US Open when 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez upset Naomi Osaka 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4 and 21-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime scored a hard-earned 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 win over Roberto Bautista Agut.
Playing next door to each other, Fernandez in Arthur Ashe Stadium and Auger-Aliassime in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the two were crowd favourites – Fernandez gradually winning over spectators with her preternatural drive and determination and Auger-Aliassime getting their backing from the start with his charisma and enterprising tennis.
Both players acknowledged and expressed their appreciation of the US Open faithful and how they inspired them, with Auger-Aliassime describing it in his on-court interview saying, “thank you for showing up, thank you for loving tennis and the game and thanks for supporting me.”
There was a serendipitous moment when Ottawa native and former player Jesse Levine was commentating during the Auger-Aliassime match. He remarked about the way Bautista Agut was battling in the third set in raucous Louis Armstrong Stadium. “There’s something,” he said, “about the New York crowds that doesn’t let anybody go away.”
If that applied to how Bautista Agut hung in against Auger-Aliassime then it did as well to Fernandez at that very moment as she refused to be intimidated and never let up against defending champion Osaka.
Fernandez played above her pay grade through most of the first two sets and then took it to an all together different level as the possibility of winning became real in the third set.
The match turned when third-seeded Osaka served at 7-5, 6-5 for what most observers presumed was going to be a victory for her after a testing challenge from the No. 73-ranked Fernandez. In a similar situation at the end of the opening set, she won a statement eight points in a row at 5-all to put a stamp on her superiority and seal the set. But this time, after breaking serve to 6-5, she made a forehand error on the first point and two more in the game to soon drop serve and send the set to a tiebreak. That’s when the 23-year-old Japanese began to wobble and Fernandez coolly capitalized to take a 5-0 lead and eventually win it 7-2.
Osaka, who has been the centre of attention for mental health issues connected to the pressures of being a professional tennis player ever since the French Open in May, was clearly frazzled in the third set but made a brave effort to regroup to 1-2 after saving two break points to avoid going down 0-3.
The story of the rest of the match may be written as Osaka having a crisis of confidence and playing poorly. But one important fact has to be remembered – as much as Osaka missed shots, a resolute Fernandez did not miss. Nor did she ever have a dip or a lapse that would allow Osaka an opening to get back into the match.
In the final set, Fernandez didn’t face a single break point and won a remarkable 18 of the 19 first-serve points she played.
She broke serve in the first game of the set and then efficiently served out the final game to love, including hitting her sixth ace and a stone-cold, backhand drop-shot winner. The match point was an inside/out forehand steered wide by Osaka.
A jubilant Fernandez lays on the ground at the moment of victory before proceeding to the net to shake hands with Osaka followed by joyous celebrating to acknowledge the loud roars of the crowd.
Giving her perspective on what happened after she won the second set in that one-sided tiebreak, Fernandez said, “from then on I was just fighting, using the crowd’s energy, putting the ball back in as much as I can – just being offensive and go for my shots.
“I’ve been serving really well the past few matches. Today I just went on court with a lot of confidence on my serve, trusting it, trusting that I’m going to hit my targets when I needed to. And I did.”
She showed remarkable single-minded resolve in the madhouse of the nearly 24,000-seat Ashe Stadium. That quality has to be inborn, not something that can be taught. “From a very young age,” she said. “I knew I was able to beat anyone, anyone who is in front of me. Even playing different sports, I was always that competitive, saying I’m going to win against them. I’m going to win against my dad in soccer, even though that’s like impossible. I’ve always had that belief. I guess today that belief came true.”
That belief will next be tested in a round-of-16 match on Sunday against Angelique Kerber, the tournament No. 16 seed and the 2016 US Open champion. It may be a case of déjà-vu for the 33-year-old German. She famously lost to an emerging 18-year-old Canadian named Bianca Andreescu in both Indian Wells and Miami in March, 2019. Fernandez turns 19 on Monday.
As for Osaka, her post-match media conference was something of a confessional, with her saying, “I guess we’re all dealing with some stuff, but I know that I’m dealing with some stuff. When I win I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”
She was teary-eyed but remained in the interview room long enough to say, “I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match (tearing up). Sorry. I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”
While Osaka’s WTA ranking will drop a spot from No. 3 to No. 4, Fernandez will now make a substantial jump from No. 73 to the fringes of the top-50 at about No. 52.
The Auger-Aliassime victory was noteworthy for the tactical manner in which he conducted the match, mostly in the first two sets, and then the maturity and composure he showed to reset after losing sets three and four.
In those first two sets he did everything right – serving great, being patient and opportunistic with his aggressive hitting in rallies with the cagey Bautista Agut as well as making timely moves forward to the net.
In the third and fourth sets, Bautista Agut, the ultimate in a consistent and savvy competitor, dug deeper and took advantage of some drops in intensity by Auger-Aliassime.
The all-meaning fifth set was testimony to Auger-Aliassime’s resilience and ability to recalibrate – putting behind him the disappointment of failing to convert six break point chances in the final game of the fourth set.
He broke serve to 3-1 and then fended off three break points serving at 4-2. The final game was a glorious show of his ability to overwhelm an opponent. Down love-30, he proceeded to win four points in a row – a 116 mph ace, a 125 mph service winner, a 114 mph ace, and then the coup de grace was a break-out, bolt forehand inside/out winner on the one and only match point.
“Things turned around quickly,” Auger-Aliassime said about the change in the third and fourth sets. “He (Bautista Agut) was gaining confidence and then he started being even more solid than he was. I wasn’t serving as good, not punching enough. So in that fifth I was like ‘this is it, all or nothing, I’m going to go for my shots, try to serve better, go in (to the net).’ I think I showed good courage.”
The stats confirmed that – his winners to unforced errors ratio in the final set was 19/18 while Bautista Agut was 5/5.
The victory means he has equaled last year’s round-of-16 result when he lost to eventual champion Dominic Thiem. If he wants to go further this year he will have to beat No. 50-ranked Frances Tiafoe, who upset No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-1 in a match that ended at 2:14 a.m. Saturday in front of a highly-partisan Tiafoe crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It will be a first meeting between the two players and Auger-Aliassime will have to be mindful that the 23-year-old American upset an off-form Denis Shapovalov 6-1, 6-4 in the second round of the National Bank Open in Toronto three weeks ago.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
It was a stroke of genius when Arthur Ashe Stadium was conceived, and opened in 1997, that it was lined up with the Unisphere, which was build for the 1964 World’s Fair, in adjacent Flushing Meadows – Corona Park. That created a corridor from the plaza in front of the stadium all the way to the large fountains that surround the Unisphere, a 12-story high structure made of stainless steel.
Feature Photo: camerawork usa