Leylah Fernandez and the Power of Joy

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

New York

SOMETHING’S HAPPENING HERE: Dazzling young fresh faces are emerging. Qualifiers are going deep, and, more than ever, the crowd is a factor. Somehow tennis seems quite new and fresh at this rocking US Open. There have been 15 matches that have gone beyond four hours, 32 five-set matches and ten comebacks when players were two sets down. Three 18-year-olds are torching the record books, including the youngest male quarterfinalist ever, Carlos Alcaraz. And for the first time two Canadian women got through to the fourth round. Like Leylah Fernandez, Canaidian Felix Auger-Aliassme is through to the quarters.

LEYLAH FERNANDEZ AND THE POWER OF JOY: As the giddy fans on Louis Armstrong became smitten with the irresistible Canadian darling, Leylah Fernandez, the immortal words of Eric Clapton’s rock anthem came to mind:

“Like a fool, I fell in love with you

Turned my whole world upside down

Layla, you’ve got me on my knees

Layla, I’m begging, darling, please

Layla darling, won’t you ease my worried mind?”

Let’s make the best of the situation

Before I finally go insane.”

Truth be told, the 18-year-old Fernandez has been driving some mighty good players mighty nuts. Thursday night, defending champion Naomi Osaka, the best hard court player on the planet, was at a loss. She grimaced, smashed her rackets and became unglued as the brassy Canadian kid stormed back from being down set point in the first set.

Another former US Open Champion, Angie Kerber (who’s won three Slams, compared with Osaka’s four), also seemed in control. But soon, she too was at a loss, as Fernandez blasted away, en route to scoring 45 winners. Chris Evert noted, “This is the most excitement we’ve seen since Wimbledon in 2019 when Coco advanced to the quarterfinals.”

But hold on. Fernandez is just 5’ 5” and wafer thin. She’s ranked No. 77 and has lifted only one significant trophy, in Monterrey, Mexico. This is the Big Apple.

As Leylah scored her 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-2 win over Angie, broadcaster Nick McCarvel noted, “Her smile goes from Staten Island to the Bronx.” New Yorker John McEnroe famously used anger to fuel his game. Fernandez uses glee. She told us that she plays her best when she’s smiling. Today we saw many a grin. We saw her grit and fist pumps. Leylah told us, “I want to put on a good show.” She certainly did. An ESPN commentator gushed, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player so happy over two hours of play.”

When top players are feeling it and playing free, their tennis astounds. Relaxed and bending low, her arm loose, her wrists in gear, Leylah served well, moved like a breeze and had her German foe, a fellow lefty, flummoxed. Plus Fernandez is a geometry whiz. Deep into the third set, Rennae Stubbs noted, “That was insanity – how good that angle was.”

Kerber confided, “If she plays like this…she has a great future. It’s the start of a great career.” In the quarterfinals, Leylah will again be tested. Her foe – Elina Svitlona – aka Mrs. Gael Monfils – will come on court with a bright diamond ring. The newlywed is fresh off winning the bronze in Tokyo and the title in Chicago.

It will be fascinating to see if young Leylah can come up with more answers. But for now, we have just one question: where did all that joy and composure come from? Cliff Drysdale mused, “It’s the fearlessness of youth – it’s so true.” Then Fernandez explained to Inside Tennis: “From a very young age I was just a happy-go-lucky girl. I never really take things too seriously.

“During the past year with all the difficulties around the world, I was lucky enough to have my family and my sisters…Every time I was feeling down, they were always there to bring me back up. My younger sister makes me laugh all the time…[She’s] the person [responsible for who] I am today, being so happy, so carefree.”

Leylah added that her parents taught her, “you can’t take things too seriously, you’ve got to be mature but at the same time just be a kid, let loose, have fun, eat chocolate when you want, just have fun, watch movies, go past your bedtime…My family have definitely kept the joy for me.” And now Leylah has given joy to many.

JUST WONDERING: Where will the poignant, multifaceted odyssey of Naomi Osaka, who went from being so young and innocent to being so vulnerable, end up? Even though she now lives in Los Angeles and had her first big win at Indian Wells, it seems improbable that she would play there in October And there is the sad possiblitiy that the vastly appealing 23-year-old just walks away from the game?

JENSON BROOKSBY AND THE MAKING OF A STAR: Veteran players stride into the press room with a “Been there, done that” ease. Their ‘tude  mixes an “I hate going to the dentist, but I gotta do it” dread with a fearless swagger – “This is my stage – I’m going to own it.”

Not Jenson Brooksby.

The kid from Carmichael, California is a rookie. Wide-eyed, he reveals a hint of doubt. It’s easier to blast a down-the-line backhand past the No. 21 seed deep into a four-hour US Open battle in front of howling fans than answer a series of staccato questions from the AP, ESPN, the New York Times and Inside Tennis.

But it must be done. At 10:03 PM Saturday night, when most 20-year-olds are whooping it up, the wide-eyed Brooksby enters the biggest press room in tennis, deep in the bowels of Ashe Stadium.

The kid who strides and grunts on court with an almost cocky confidence is now tentative. We see a hint of doubt. Cautiously, he glances at the handler. His eyes ask, “What do I do? Where do I go?”

The handler informs him, “You go up there, on the podium.” Jenson whispers, “I’m thirsty.” The handler says, “We provide water,” and hands him a bottle of Evian (and I think of the time 20 years ago when the beloved tennis teacher, historian and comedian Vic Braden was giving a big speech at a USTA conference and asked, “Would it break the budget of the USTA if I could have a glass of water?”).

Brooksby goes on to do a fine job in the presser. Okay, there’s not a hint of unrestrained joy and giddiness, like that of young winners Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu. We don’t get the “Listen up, I’m a sage” insights of Novak Djokovic and we see none of the “Get me out of here” weariness of Venus, let alone the snappiness of Serena.

But Jenson got through the presser, replying dutifully to the reporters. There were no zingers or gotcha questions (Why do you grunt so loud sometimes and then are so silent? What about your 12-minute bathroom break during your Taylor Fritz match? Or, Talk to us about your fondness for Bach’s third suite for piano). Instead he explains: I began at 7, I’ve had just one coach, I didn’t idolize anyone, I’ve always had my own unique style, and, no, I’m not afraid of facing the No. 1 player in the world on the world’s biggest court on Labor Day.

At first I thought Jenson doing his presser might be as tough on him as facing Nole. Becoming a winner in tennis is one thing. Becoming a star in America is quite another. But, kind kudos to the kid: he’s doing both with aplomb.

REILLY’S REPORT: When asked about America’s youngest ATP players, Reilly Opelka said, “…The young guys are better than us, if I’m being honest. Korda is a hell of a player…Brooksby is brutal…He is going to be a big second-week guy. I’m curious to see his match with Djokovic. I think he can give Djokovic a lot of fits because he’s just tricky. Nakashima is as pure of a ball-striker as there is. I think the young guys are going to be the guys to beat, from the American standpoint.”

DEFINITELY UNAPPROVED: Reilly Opelka was fined $10,000 for having an oversized logo on a pink bag from Belgium’s Tim Van Laere Gallery that he brought on court. He said, “I snapped a racquet over my knee, didn’t get fined a dollar, you bring a pink bag and get fined 10 grand. What a joke.”  For his next match, he turned the bag inside out and German artist Frederick Kunath wrote “UNAPPROVED” in small letters on the bag.

GOOD TIMING: As Botic van de Zandschulp stepped up his serve at crunch time against Diego Schwartzman, Jason Goodall noted, “The cleaver is meeting the block at precisely the right time.”

FIRST THINGS FIRST: The first question from a reporter in the Botic van de Zandschulp press conference was, “Can you please pronounce your name exactly as you would be doing in Dutch so we have a correct.”

QUOTEBOOK

“Buckle up, it’s going to be a long ride…don’t get too high or too low. You have to manage your emotions.” – American veteran Shelby Rogers to young Leylah Fernandez

“If he hits 17 winners and two unforced errors, there’s not much you can do…If he kept on playing the way he played in the first set, next week I would’ve been on vacation somewhere in the south of France. I’ve never played someone at that level.” – Zverev on the zoning Jack Sock

“Bend it like Bencic.” – Brad Gilbert

NOT EXACTLY ON OTTE PILOT: German qualifier Oscar Otte threw up during both of his first two matches. Then, after his third round win over Andreas Seppi, he rolled on the court in triumph and celebration.

DON’T WANT TO SEE THAT GUY AGAIN: After being crushed by Daniil Medvedev Saturday, Brit Dan Evans said in the future he’d be “looking at the draw and hoping [Daniil is] never near me.”

NO KIDDING: When commentating on the all-lefty battle between Angie Kerber and Leylah Fernandez, Chris Evert noted, “I had a particular lefty I played all the time and it drove me nuts.” In the most storied tennis rivalry of all time, southpaw Martina Navratilova held a 43-37 edge over Evert.

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF A GOOD WASHING MACHINE: A reporter noted that for the first time Botic van de Zandschulp had played eight matches in one tournament, and asked, “How are you doing on shoes, socks, clothes?” The Dutch qualifier replied, “They have good laundry service here, so I can get it washed every day.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Always look forward to reading the articles in IT. Takes me back to the monthly publications of World Tennis which I would keep by my bedside and re-read until I would get the next issue. Long live Inside Tennis!

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