In Montréal where Leylah Fernandez and Félix Auger-Aliassime come from, they sometimes call it le carré d’as, or literally the square of aces. Whatever the term used for semi-finals, they are rarified air in Grand Slam tennis and Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime will soon be breathing it.
On Tuesday, Fernandez continued her charmed run at the US Open with a suspenseful 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) victory over 5th-seeded Elina Svitolina to set up a semi-final against No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka. Then Auger-Aliassime advanced to a final-four meeting with men’s No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev – 6-3, 3-1 (ret.) over Carlos Alcaraz when the 18-year-old Spanish prodigy retired with an adductor injury.
That anticlimactic finish was in dramatic contrast to Fernandez’s victory, which could hardly have been closer when the players were locked dead even at one set apiece and with the score at 5-all in the final-set tiebreak. The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd had been in a frenzy for more than two hours when a Fernandez forehand passing shot tipped the top of the net on the next point, sliding past Svitolina to create a match point. After a Svitolina backhand service return sailed long on the ensuing point, Fernandez fell to her knees, overcome with relief and joy.
A day after her 19th birthday, she had completed an unlikely sweep of defending champion and No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka in the third round, No. 16 seed and 2016 winner Angelique Kerber in the round of 16 and, in the quarter-finals, No. 5 seed Svitolina, the only woman to rank in the WTA top-10 every week since May, 2017.
Currently ranked No. 73, but now assured of a spot in the top-40 regardless of her semi-final result on Thursday, Fernandez has taken the tennis world by storm with her energetic game-style and guile. She’s barely 5-foot-6 but packs an incredible punch off the ground with forehands and backhands that are struck early (on the short hop) and streak laser-low over the net. And she has a preternatural instinct for hitting shots that, to put it bluntly, go where her opponent ain’t. Experts will tell you that you can’t teach that sixth sense of how to know when to wrong-foot (change direction) hitting to the player across the net, or the exceptional timing required to break out of neutral rallies with stone-cold winners that stamp large punctuation marks on points.
She has a sneaky-good serve and, to sprinkle a little extra spice into her recipe for success, does business as a lefthander, almost always an advantage on the tennis court.
The 26-year-old Svitolina, a veteran of 35 (73-35) Grand Slam events to just seven (9-6) for Fernandez, often found herself frozen in place facing the power-packed, indecipherable Fernandez. For the match, Fernandez had 42 winners to 32 for Svitolina. And she also was dazzling at the net, winning 19 of the 24 points played there. Svitolina was 12 of 22, with that 22nd one being the fateful forehand volley she didn’t quite ‘stick’ on the penultimate point of the match, enabling Fernandez to scramble across and hit that crucial winning passing shot down-the-line.
A diminutive dynamo with an other-worldly drive and focus, Fernandez’s spectacular play has made her the darling of the Ashe Stadium faithful.
There’s a youthful fearlessness, determination and focus about her that’s so intense it’s as if she’s in a trance. “After every point, win or lose,” she said, “I would always tell myself trust my game, go for my shots.”
Asked if the words ever change, she replied, “yes, I see what I’m feeling. I see if there’s one phrase that really catches me or that makes me more motivated than the others. I just keep it throughout the match.”
The Svengali behind her success is her father Jorge, who is at their home in Boynton Beach, Florida. “Today he told me to go out there, have fun, fight for every ball, fight for every point,” she said about him after beating Svitolina. “‘Today’s your first quarter-final – don’t make it your last. Don’t make it your last match here.’”
Her challenge against Sabalenka on Thursday will be to counter the explosive hitting of a woman who’s six inches taller and about 40 pounds heavier than her, but who also has a reputation for blowing hot and cold. The 24-year-old Belarusian had her best Grand Slam finish to date two months ago with a semi-final at Wimbledon. Asked about facing Fernandez, she said, “she’s playing well, she’s moving well and the crowd here is for her. I would say it’s nothing to lose for her. It’s going to be an interesting match.”
Fernandez’s younger sister Bianca arrived in time for Tuesday’s match, joining her mother Irene, fitness trainer Duglas Cordero and other friends in the courtside seats.
When the family moved to Florida three years ago, there were tough times – including when things got to the point that Jorge had to sell his car to keep the family finances afloat. Now to the $786,772 (USD) in official prize money earned in her career, Leylah has added $675,000 (or $853,100 CAN) at the US Open. She can bump that up to seven figures at $1,275,000 if she reaches the final.
Auger-Aliassime, who said he hadn’t sensed anything wrong with Alcaraz though the Spaniard had taken a brief medical time-out after the third game of the second set, didn’t get much out of a workout in the match, which lasted all of 68 minutes. He broke the Alcaraz serve to 3-1 in the opening set and from then on was basically in charge, although the world No. 55 did get the better of a couple of entertaining exchanges that he ended with bounding forehand volleys at the net. He had played five-setters in his two previous matches (including a tumultuous victory over No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round) and there was a consensus that they had taken their toll.
After reaching the quarter-finals in July at Wimbledon (losing to eventual finalist Matteo Berrettini), the 21-year-old Auger-Aliassime is playing in his 10th Grand Slam event. On Friday, he’s matched against Medvedev, the 2019 US Open finalist.
They have only played once – at the 2018 Rogers Cup in Toronto (above) with the No. 68-ranked Russian winning 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(7). The then 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime, a can’t-miss prospect at the time, had upset No. 18-ranked Lucas Pouille in the first round, raising hopes for his meeting with Medvedev. It turned out to be one of those cognoscenti matches with a hardy sprinkling of diehard fans hanging around until after midnight in hopes of seeing the still-raw Auger-Aliassime take a significant step to the third round with a win.
He led 4-1 in the final set tiebreak after walloping three forehand winners, and then 5-4, but never managed to reach match point. Both players competed desperately during the two-hour and 35-minute contest, with an exhausted Medvedev collapsing onto the court after winning. A disconsolate Auger-Aliassime, sporting his Fresh Prince of Bel-Air haircut, took the loss hard, declaring that he was “sad and frustrated” during his media availability.
“2018 in Toronto, it was already a great match back then,” Auger-Aliassime recalled Tuesday about facing the spindly, 6-foot-6, 22-year-old, octopus-like Medvedev. “I had a few chances. It was a tight loss.
“We’re both very different players. He was just No. 50 or No. 60 in the world at the time. I was not even top-100. So – a very different situation.”
Both have residences in Monte Carlo, which explains Auger-Alissime saying, “I’ve practised with him a lot of times.”
Looking ahead to the semi-final, Auger-Aliassime said, “he’s going to come in with a lot of confidence. I also need to step up and be confident in myself – serve well, be solid in every aspect of my game.
“At the same time I need to try to put pressure on him. I need to lace my shoes really well, too, because there’s going to be a lot of running.”
With their victories on Tuesday, Auger-Aliassime and Fernandez became only the second Canadian pair in history to make the semi-finals of the same Grand Slam event – joining Genie Bouchard and Milos Raonic at Wimbledon in 2014.
With his 720 points for reaching the semi-finals, Auger-Aliassime has moved his ranking up to a career-high No. 11, making him the No. 1 Canadian ahead of Denis Shapovalov who drops from No. 10 to No. 12.
A win in Friday’s semi-final, at either 3 p.m. or 7 p.m., and Auger-Aliassime would crack the top-10, moving into the No. 9 spot replacing Roger Federer.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
A sunny day at the 2018 US Open.
Feature Photo: camerawork usa