National Sports

Leylah Fernandez continues miracle run, advances to Open final

Leylah Fernandez, it appeared, finally faced the opponent who would derail her wonderful Cinderella story.

Aryna Sabalenka, seeded second in this US Open, stands about seven inches taller than the teenaged Fernandez, with a serve considerably faster. The 23-year-old Belarusian breezed through the first five rounds of the tournament, mowing down the bracket while dropping just one set.


In Thursday’s semifinal, Sabalenka had a 3-0 lead in just 12 minutes.  She won 12 of the first 14 points. Fernandez looked outmatched and outclassed.

Fast forward more than two hours and it was Fernandez, just three days removed from her 19th birthday, celebrating another thrilling victory, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, earning a spot in a final that nobody could’ve envisioned just a week ago.


She’ll face unseeded 18-year-old Emma Radacanu, with the winner assured of becoming the youngest Open champion since Serena Williams in 1999.

Radacanu toppled Maria Sakkari in the other semifinal Thursday night on Ashe, 6-1, 6-4. It was a breeze compared to Fernandez’s rollercoaster against Sabalenka.

Because once again, Cardiac Leylah needed a comeback Thursday. Again, she was mentally and physically tougher than a more experienced opponent. Again, she frustrated a top seed into smashing a racket.

“That’s years and years of hard work and tears and blood and everything,” said Fernandez, who had fellow Canadian Steve Nash in her player’s box as a supporter. “I just wanted to be in the finals. I really wanted it. And I fought for every point.”

A lot of Fernandez’s run doesn’t make sense, the way a teenager burst onto to the scene out of nowhere, with little hype or fanfare before this Flushing tournament. But her run to the Final has saved the women’s bracket, which needed an excitement jolt after Serena Williams’ withdrawal and Naomi Osaka’s early elimination.

The Flushing crowd found its favorite, and Fernandez has obliged with show-womanship throughout the tournament. In less than one week, she has eliminated three top-5 seeded players, which doesn’t include her victory over former champ Angelique Kerber. She won tiebreakers in the last four matches. All those were three setters.

Sabalenka felt the magic.

“Seems like in these two weeks, everything is working well for her,” Sabalenka said. “Like she has nothing to lose. People are here supporting her like she’s kind of on the top of the situation. She’s staying on the baseline, hitting sometimes crazy shots and everything is going in. I would say everything is going her way.”


Beating Sabalenka required an adjustment from Fernandez after that rocky start. She stepped back a few feet behind the baseline on Sabalenka’s powerful first serve, giving her enough real estate to react. And after trailing 4-1 and staving off a set point, Fernandez won a tiebreaker.

Sabalenka quickly imploded and smashed her racket to smithereens during a changeover in the second set (Osaka also destroyed her racket in her second-round loss to Fernandez).

Sabalenka threw away points with wayward shots and serves. Frustration was an ongoing issue for the Wimbledon semifinalist.

“I would say that I destroyed myself,” Sabalenka said.

In the final game, she committed two double faults – her seventh and eighth of the match – while the youngster across the court, the Giant slayer from Canada, remained cool and collected.