Photo : Camera Work USA
If you were told before the US Open began that a Canadian would make the final, it would not have seemed like an overly bold prediction.
Bianca Andreescu was the defending women’s champion. Denis Shapovalov had just reached the Wimbledon semi-finals. Félix Auger-Aliassime has been on the rise for a while and seemed primed for a breakthrough.
But Leylah Fernandez? The 18-year-old ranked 73rd in the world who had only once made it past the second round of a Slam? Maybe a few years from now, but not in 2021.
Four Top 20 wins, three Top 5, two major champions later and the Canadian teen found herself in her first Grand Slam final, capping off one of the most unlikely runs in tennis history.
Fernandez’s spectacular fortnight in New York captured the attention, and hearts, of tennis fans not just in her home nation, but around the world, turning the teen into a household name and a crowd favourite.
Here are the best moments from Leylah Fernandez’s run to the US Open final.
The Osaka comeback
In the eyes of most, getting to the third round of the US Open would have been considered a good performance for the Canadian teen.
And a match on Arthur Ashe against the defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka, even if was a loss, could only be good for gaining big-match experience.
It was already a win-win scenario, but still not many were giving the youngster a chance at an upset.
But then Fernandez hung with Osaka early on, matching the four-time major champion shot for shot. Even though she lost the first set, the teen was showing composure and her high-level proved that, regardless of the result, she belonged on the biggest stage.
Still, it looked like the expected result was inevitable as Osaka served for the match at 7-5, 6-5. Or at least it looked that way to everyone but Fernandez, who broke back and then took the tiebreak to send the match to a deciding set.
Surely Osaka’s veteran experience would win out in the decider, right? There’s no way the 18-year-old could keep her nerve on such a big stage?
The pressure could not have been higher for Fernandez as she took an early break in the third set and then just had to ride her serve to victory. And she did, completing the upset of the tournament and announced to the world that she is the real deal.
Leylah and Carlos’ double-upset
Fernandez’s win over Osaka wrapped up one of the more surprising days of the tournaments. But if fans thought they were suffering from déjà-vu on that fateful Friday in New York, it was with good reason.
Fernandez was the second 18-year-old to upset a third seed on Ashe that day. Earlier, Carlos Alcaraz, also 18, upset the third seed on the men’s side, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in five sets.
It was a fun coincidence which the two victors embraced, meeting up on the practice courts the next day.
Doubling-Up on Kerber
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…
Fernandez likely made a fool out of many fans and pundits who wrote her off in the fourth round when she trailed three-time major champion Angelique Kerber by a set and a break.
The round of 16 battle was eerily similar to the match with Osaka, where she lost a tight first set and found herself down a break late in the second.
No way was she going to escape again, right?
The result was the same as the third round. The Canadian broke back, won the set in a tiebreak, and then took the third.
The main difference was how the third set progressed. Unlike the Osaka match, where Fernandez had to fend off the defending champion throughout a tight set, the teen dominated the decider, seemingly breaking her opponent’s will as Kerber fell apart under Fernandez’s relentless baseline assault.
Happy birthday from a legend
On her off day between the fourth round and quarter-final, Fernandez turned 19.
As a gift from the tournament, she was given a signed copy of Billie Jean King’s new autobiography “All In” with a personal message from the tennis legend herself, saying “To Leylah, Happy 19th Birthday. Continue to dream big and cherish every moment! Go for it!”
That’s a pretty sweet birthday present.
Ice in her veins
By the time Fernandez met Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals, there would be no more surprises. No one was underestimating the Canadian anymore. She had proven her win over Osaka was no fluke by dominating Kerber. She had shown herself to be seemingly impervious to pressure. This match was going to be decided purely on who could play better tennis.
And for much of the match, it was Fernandez.
Unlike her previous two rounds, the Canadian won the first set, doing so by controlling the rallies and making Svitolina run laps around her side of the court.
But then Fernandez was given a new challenge. For the first time in the tournament, she had to face some adversity when she lost the second set, something that had not happened in her previous four matches.
In many ways, the quarter-final was the biggest test of maturity for the youngster. There was pressure, expectations, and the challenge of picking herself back up after blowing multiple leads. Fernandez had led by a set, but was forced to a decider. She had a break lead and served for the match in the third set, but was broken back and pushed to a tiebreak. She led the deciding set tiebreak 4-1 only for Svitolina to fight back.
A lesser player would have cracked, lost their composure and been unable to move past the missed opportunities. Most players probably would have beaten themselves in that moment.
Fernandez is not an average player.
At 5-all in the tiebreak, the 19-year-old did her best Rafael Nadal impression, curling a forehand passing shot winner up the line to set up match point. One point later, she was in the semi-finals after arguably her most impressive win yet.
The Maple Syrup
Fernandez’s run was the highlight of what was overall an amazing tournament for Canada. Her results alone would have been enough to gain popularity… but she just had to add a level of Canadiana to further endear herself to her home fans, and fans around the world as a whole.
When asked what was going to in Canada to produce such great results, her answer could not have been more Canadian:
“It’s the maple syrup.”
If that’s not permission for all of us to drown all of our food in maple syrup from here on in, what is?
The quote went viral, leading Auger-Aliassime, after a quarter-final win of his own, to say that he and Fernandez would go out for pancakes before their semi-finals.
Surviving the Sabalenka semi
The semi-finals posed what was possibly the biggest, and most impossible, challenge yet as Fernandez squared off with the in-form world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, who was also hunting for her first major final.
And when Sabalenka came firing out of the blocks, hitting nine winners on her way to a 3-0 lead to start the match, it looked like the Fernandez train had finally reached the end of the line.
But the Canadian was not just happy to be in the semis. She weathered the early storm and eventually proved to be the more composed of the two, fighting back to win the first set in another tiebreak.
Like the quarter-finals, she lost the second set and found herself in a dogfight in the third. But she continued to show poise beyond her years, keeping her cool in the critical moments, something her opponent was unable to do as Sabalenka threw away the final game of the match with two double faults and a first-ball error on match point to send Fernandez into the final.
While the last match of the tournament may not have ended in the Canadian’s favour, it takes away nothing from the absolutely incredible breakthrough tournament had by Fernandez.
With the composure and fearless tennis she was able to produce, the future is nothing but bright for the 19-year-old.