Less than a week ago, few casual tennis fans knew even a little bit about Leylah Fernandez. When she stunned Naomi Osaka in the third round of the US Open, many were more focused on the player who lost than on the player who won.
Those same people wondered if the precocious teenager from Canada had taken advantage of Osaka’s poor form that night.
But after coming back in the fourth round on Sunday to beat the more reliable and in shape Angelique Kerber, Fernandez – with her natural exuberance, ubiquitous smile and fist high in the air – has become the sensation of this year’s Open.
“I think she can go very far in the coming years,” Kerber said after the game.
There is a chance she could go very far in the coming days. Fernandez plays the best tennis of her young career, blowing forehand winners and exuding the kind of joyful fighting spirit and confidence that captivated New York fans over a wild three-day run.
With a clamorous crowd chanting her name at Louis Armstrong Stadium, Fernandez lost the first set on Sunday and trailed a service break in the second before beating Kerber, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2, down than 12 hours before you turn 19.
She was delighted. She was proud. She raised her arms in the air and flashed her magnetic smile. But don’t think she’s shocked by her own success, even if the rest of the tennis world is.
“I expected that one day my tennis game would come through and I would be on the big stage in front of a big crowd to play against big players and take the wins too,” she said. “I’m not surprised what’s happening now.”
Fernandez, the last Canadian to step on the scene, said she would celebrate her win with her family and her fitness coach, Duglas Cordero, at the same Italian restaurant where they dined every night of the tournament. Her birthday celebration on Monday includes a third round doubles match alongside New Zealand’s Erin Routliffe.
But while looking ahead, Fernandez can think about this too: While she was only 18, she defeated Osaka, the No. 3 seed and defending champion, and Kerber, the No. 16 seed and 2016 US Open champion, all in under 48. o’clock. Together, those two champions own seven major titles (Osaka has four), but for left-handed Fernandez, it was just two players who required unique tactical approaches.
“The biggest difference is that one is a left-hander and the other a right-hander,” she said. “I just approached the matches the same.”
Now she has to switch back to another right-hander. Fernandez’s opponent in the quarterfinals is No. 5 Elina Svitolina, who was able to send Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3 in the 76 minutes at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday without any problems.
Born and raised in Montreal, Fernandez became the first Canadian to reach the quarterfinals this year. Number 6 Bianca Andreescu, from Toronto and the champion of 2019, will play in the fourth round on Monday evening against number 17 Maria Sakkari from Greece.
But even as the stakes steadily mount, Fernandez has shown no fear on the court as she marches into the second week of what is arguably the biggest tennis tournament of all. Maybe it’s because she’s too young to know better.
“I remember the feeling very well,” said Kerber, 33. “I mean, yeah, it’s been a few years. But of course she has no pressure.”
Trailing a set and a break in the second, Fernandez turned the game’s momentum on its head as she broke back to make it 4-4, taking the ball out of the air and ripping a backhand cross-court winner. Her fist went up and the fans exploded.
In the tiebreak, Fernandez led 5-1 and the fans, who poured into the stadium as the news spread that she was going to put in another good fight, started chanting “Let’s Go Ley-lah” as if she were De-rek. jeter.
Kerber fought back to make it 5-4, but then Fernandez extended a Kerber serve wide and ripped a forehand winner back in from off the line from outside the field—a shot so precise, so powerful and so brutal that it’s a racket blow of appreciation from Kerber.
Two points later, Fernandez forced Kerber wide enough that she couldn’t get the ball safely into the field. Once again, Fernandez’s arms went up in celebration and the fans roared in approval. Fernandez carried the momentum into the third set, where she finished the job.
When she won the final point, the crowd exploded and jumped to their feet as one with deafening cheers for their newly adopted favorite young star-to-be.
“I just loved every moment,” Fernandez said. “Honestly, the crowd was amazing, so thanks to them I was able to win.”
But she’s not the only teen to impress at this year’s event. Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, 18, upset No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas, then defeated Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk, 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 6-0, on Sunday to reach a quarter-final. British 18-year-old Emma Raducanu will also play against Shelby Rogers in the fourth round on Monday.
Fernandez said she remembered the first time she saw Alcaraz in the junior circuit and thought she was watching the reincarnation of a right-hander Rafael Nadal.
“It’s an eye opener to see all these teens, these youngsters who are doing so well at the US Open and the other tournaments,” she said.
She called herself a “happy-go-lucky” kid who has always found joy in everything she does. The fans fed on that energy, and she fed theirs. Perhaps one day, after many years on the tour, when she’s 33 like Kerber, she’ll lose some of her youthful glee.
What Fernandez enjoys now is a special, unique feeling, a feeling Kerber remembers well and said is nearly impossible to recapture.
“I think it’s just for young people,” Kerber said.