The lightning bolt that hit New York tonight was huge, but Leylah Fernandez, who turned 19 just a few days ago, is small. The diminutive Canadian wants to inspire smaller athletes. Like her hero, Justine Henin, she’s just 5’ 5”. Leylah said, “Justine is not the biggest player nor the strongest player, but she always found a solution playing against bigger players.”
Fernandez, the Canadian giant killer, ranked No. 73, who came up with extraordinary solutions during a magical run to the semis, took out two former No. 1 players, Naomi Osaka and Angie Kerber, plus No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina. Henin’s famous slogan was, “Impossible is nothing.” But against No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka, the 19-year-old who stole our hearts seemed at first to have few solutions.
At the opening bell, the powerful Belarusian seemed unforgiving. This was a mismatch. Sabalenka, 23, bludgeoned her smaller, lower-ranked foe – a great heavyweight vs. an aspiring lightweight.
Aryna got her first ten first serves in and raced to a 4-1 lead. But Fernandez is a mighty battler. She uncorked three aces and took advantage of a loose Sabalenka service game in which Aryna double-faulted twice, and broke her to get the first set back on serve.
In the subsequent tiebreak, Leylah continued her giant-killer ways. Her serve confused and jammed Aryna. A twisting Leylah lob left her foe hapless. Sabalenka, a traditionally fragile player, unraveled. Her returns faltered, her forehand flew long. The Canadian 19-year-old stayed composed and won the tiebreak 7-3.
But the veteran, who won in Madrid earlier this year, called on her experience, improved her massive serve and cut down on her errors. She prevailed in a dazzling 14-stroke exchange, imposed her big game and won the second set 6-4.
Playing only her 15th Slam match, Fenandez had been on court for over three hours longer than Aryna this fortnight. Yes, the kid had had a truly dazzling run – but now, it seemed she might fade. Surely she must be drained.
In a match with more switchbacks than a Canadian brook, we saw a common theme in tennis: guile versus strength.
Sabalenka, who is perhaps the most powerful WTA player not named Serena, tried to impose. Her shoulders are broad, her groundies are fierce. Aryna pounds, Leylah scampers. Aryna bashes, Fernandez retrieves. Power would certainly prevail.
But Leylah is amazing. She sees so clearly, she anticipates with such an intuitive ease. She hits early, she returns deep. She creates angles, controls the middle of the court – and controls her emotions. More than anything, the slight kid is empowered by the fearlessness of youth. She’s fueled by joy. The New York crowd loved it.
In the final set, Aryna, who is one of just two top ten WTA players not to have made it to a Slam final, blinked. Fragility is her Achilles’ heel. Two of her backhands flew long. Fernandez broke to go up 4-2. The crowd roared. But Sabalenka roared right back and broke at love, putting the decisive third set back on serve.
At 5-4, as the Belarusian served to stay in the match, you hoped a glorious battle would not end in infamy, as you suspected it might.
But it did.
Sabalenka, the power broker with weak nerves, collapsed. She netted a backhand and twice double-faulted. She swiped the air in sheer frustration. It’s painful to watch an athlete implode at crunch time.
A Sabalenka backhand flew long and the Canadian broke at love, to win the match 7-6, 4-6, 6-4. The teen crumpled to the ground in relief and joy. The vanquished veteran left in tears.
She soon confided that the moment got to her. She overhit, “overthought,” and went for the lines too much. “I destroy myself…This is what we call pressure…Well, this is life. If you’re not using your opportunity, someone else will use it…I will keep working and fighting, and I believe that one day it will come. Seems like in these two weeks, everything [was] working well for [Leylah]. Like there was nothing to lose….Everything is going her way….There is no pressure on her at all. Crowds are here for her.”
For her part, an elated Fernandez said, “One word that really stuck to me is ‘magical’ … I’m just having fun. I’m trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy. I’m glad…the fans are loving it – and I’m loving it, too.”
Fernandez then referred to Justine Henin’s famous motto. “Yes, it’s true,” she said, “Impossible is nothing. My dad would tell me all the time there’s no limit to my potential…Nothing’s impossible. There’s no limit to what you can do.”
She then recalled her family’s daunting hurdles. “A lot of people doubted me, my family and my dreams. They kept saying no, that I’m not going to be a professional tennis player, I should stop and just pursue going to school.
“One teacher…told me to stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school. You know what? I’m just glad that she told me that, because every day I have that phrase in my head saying…I’m going to push through, and prove to her everything that I’ve dreamed of I’m going to achieve.
“There’s many more things that we had to go through as a family…My mom had to go to California for a few years to support my family…Those few years were definitely hard for me because I needed a mom, I needed someone to be there for me through the age of 10 to 13. I barely saw her…Every time I saw her, it was like seeing a stranger….I’m just eternally grateful for everything that’s happened to us. [And now] I can say that I’ve done a pretty good job in achieving my dreams.”
But Fernandez’s dreamy breakthrough was just the beginning of a night that celebrated the joy of youth like no other. Another teen, Brit Emma Raducanu, stunned this year’s French Open semifinalist and No. 17 seed, the heavily favored Greek player Maria Sakkari, to become the first male or female qualifier to reach a US Open final. The lowest ranked female semifinalist in Open history used her poised aggression to win 6-1, 6-4, and notch her ninth straight win in New York. She’s only the second British woman to reach a US Open final, and incredibly, at 18, is the youngest Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova in 2004. Amazingly, she hasn’t lost a set in New York.
Going into the Open, many thought there would be an Ash Barty party. No one expected that these two so appealing, incredibly improbable longshots (Fenandez was 200-1, Raducanu was 100-1) would be giving us a teen party like no other.
Who knows? In this zany, delightful and never, ever dull women’s tournament, no one knows what exactly will happen on Saturday – except that, for sure, it will be no slumber party.
ALL THINGS DJOKOVIC:
- “Djokovic is saying, ‘I want the stage all for myself.’” – John McEnroe on the Serb’s hope to surpass Roger and Rafa
- “We’re here to not let him win the US Open.” – Daniil Medvedev.
- “Has anyone been better at the long haul than this guy?” – Chris Fowler
- “Djokovic is the most technically sound player I’ve ever seen.” – John McEnroe
- “Djokovic remains the standard, but the pack is closing in.” – ESPN
- “He’s like in the movies. You have to kill the guy 27 times, and still he gets up.” – Daniil Medvedev
- “I’m my biggest opponent and biggest supporter, so it’s all about how I handle it.” – Djokovic
- “I like to play best-of-five, especially against the younger guys. The experience of being on the big stage so many times does help.” – Djokovic
- “If Djokovic wins, it would be a slam dunk on the numbers and stats.” – Chris Fowler
- “I’m sure Novak wants 45 Slams [and to] play till 55. But…I want to win the US Open.” – Daniil Medvedev
- “Playing against him is such an honor.” – Matteo Berrettini
- “I have a guiding star in a way, a dream to win a Slam here…But I thrive under pressure…Pressure is a privilege – it truly is. This is what you work for, day in, day out, all your life – to put yourself in a unique position to win Grand Slams and to make history.” – Djokovic
- “Against him…You have to be perfect…[But] most of the time you can’t be perfect. That’s why most of the time people lose. You have to win the match yourself. You have to be the one that is dominating…You have to do it with very little unforced errors. He is the best player in the world.” – Alexander Zverev
- “I don’t steal souls. Everyone has their soul. We’re all beautiful souls. But I’ll take your legs out, that’s for sure.” – Novak in response to Andy Roddick’s quip, “First Novak takes your legs, then he takes your soul.”
- “I just said millions of times that of course I’m aware of the history – it gives me motivation. If I start to think about it too much, it burdens me mentally. I want to really go back to the basics and what really works for me mentally.” – Djokovic on why he was reluctant to answer Pat McEnroe’s question on court about winning the Grand Slam
- “There’s nothing normal about what he’s doing.” – Chris Fowler