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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, September 9, 2021

 
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In her seventh major appearance, 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez stopped second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4 to reach the US Open final.

Photo credit: Pete Staples/USTA/US Open

Bouncing behind the baseline ready for launch, Leylah Fernandez delivered emotional elevation to Arthur Ashe Stadium.

A fearless Fernandez defused second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4 continuing her fairy-tale thrill ride into her first US Open final.

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When Sabalenka’s final shot strayed, a smiling Fernandez squealed in joy, dropped to her knees and pumped her fist to her mother and sister in her support box. A lifetime of chasing the dream flashed through Fernandez’s head in victory.

“Years and years and years of hard work and tears and blood and everything,” Fernandez told ESPN’s Pam Shriver of her journey to the final. “On court off court sacrifices. I just wanted to be in the finals. I really wanted it. And I fought for every point and Aryna just fought for the same thing and I don’t know how I got that last point in but I’m glad it was and I’m glad I’m in the final.”




In just her seventh Grand Slam appearance, the 19-year-old Fernandez joins 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu as the second Canadian woman to reach the Flushing Meadows in the last three years. 

Fernandez will face 18-year-old Briton Emma Raducanu in Saturday afternoon's final. Raducanu made history as the first qualifier, male or female, to reach the US Open final dismissing 17th-seeded Maria Sakkari 6-1, 6-4. The 150th-ranked Raducanu has dropped just 27 games en route to the final. 

A 200 to 1 longshot to take the title before this fortnight began, the 73rd-ranked Fernandez is the lowest-ranked woman to reach the US Open final since Sloane Stephens in 2017. Fernandez won this semifinal because of her courage, consistency and variety. The teenager tempted Sabalenka with the drop shot, hit a couple of timely lobs and answered an early 1-4 deficit with a three ace game.

The Canadian lefthander used her court craft and poise to combat Sabalenka’s explosive serve and power. Wimbledon semifinalist Sabalenka slammed 45 winners—19 more than her teenage opponent—and put herself in position to reach her maiden major final. But Sabalenka, who can struggle to play percentage tennis at crunch time, was her own worst enemy down the stretch.

The second seed committed 52 unforced errors and two of her eight double faults in a row serving in the final game where she dissolved amid immense pressure.

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

"But she's really aggressive and she's staying on the baseline, hitting the ball, taking the ball pretty early, making you move so you would be always out of the position. Today I couldn't make her move as I wanted."



Straddling the baseline to redirect Sabalenka’s drives, Fernandez withstood a whirlwind of winners, saved seven of 11 break points and played with more clarity and care in the final stages of the first and last sets.

"I think I've been doing some things incredible," Fernandez said. "It's like I think one word that really stuck to me is 'magical' because not only is my run really good but also the way I'm playing right now.

"I'm just having fun, I'm trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy. I'm glad that whatever I'm doing on court, the fans are loving it and I'm loving it, too. We'll say it's magical”

Emerging from the "death section" of the draw, Fernandez has lit up the largest Grand Slam stage in the sport knocking off three Top 5 seeds. 

Armed with advice from her father and coach Jorge Fernandez to "fight for your dream", Fernandez snapped Elina Svitolina's nine-match winning streak in the quarterfinals. Fernandez dethroned defending champion Naomi Osaka after the four-time champion served for the match before battling by three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 in a glorious fourth-round battle.

The seed slayer found trouble early tnight. Two games into the match, Sabalenka put her game in gear. A crackling rally that saw both women firing with aggression ended with Sabalenka slashing a forehand off the sideline. The Belarusian banged another big forehand to break at 15 for 2-0.

Landing stinging serves, Sabalenka made 10 consecutive first serves to open. Sabalenka backed up the break at love surprising the Canadian with a clean drop shot for a 3-0 lead after just eight minutes of play.

The teenager redirected a deep return holding to get on the board. Playing with relaxed aggression, Sabalenka was scorching the wide serve in both boxes to set up her first strike. Slamming her third ace out wide, Sabalenka wrapped a love hold for 4-1.

Knowing she needed to take more risk, Fernandez did exactly that firing through a three-ace game then rapping deep returns to earn triple break point. Sabalenka saved two break points but blinked sending her first double fault of the night into net as Fernandez got back on serve in the seventh game. The left-hander delivered a three-game run to level.

The second seed rose to the stress with a 117 mph ace and heavy forehands holding for 5-4.

Serving to force a tiebreaker, Fernandez sailed a forehand up 30-0 opening the door for Sabalenka. Unleashing flat drives the Belarusian earned set point, got the forehand she wanted but was flat-footed slapping it into net. Driving two slider serves down the middle, Fernandez held to force the tiebreaker.

Throughout this fortnight, Fernandez has been a tiebreak titan winning all five breakers she’s played, including tiebreak set wins over 2020 champion Naomi Osaka, three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber and fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina, whom Fernandez edged in a gripping third-set breaker.

Once again, the teenager showed more poise and sharper court sense than a veteran opponent in the extra session. Deadlocked at 3-all Sabalenka sailed a return then Fernandez pushed the Belarusian back with a lob. A back-pedaling Sabalenka badly bungled that overhead and compounded that miscue with a double fault to had Fernandez three set points.




The world No. 73 needed just one whipping the wide serve to take a one-set lead with a roar and clenched fist toward the adoring crowd.

"I would say that in that set she didn't do anything," Sabalenka said. "I was just, like, sometimes overhitting, sometimes I didn't move well. As I said, on the key moment, I was up 4-2 serving, and I think I made double-faults. My first-serve percentage wasn't really good.

"I wouldn't say that she did something. I would say that I destroy myself."
Both women left the court for bathroom breaks. Sabalenka returned breaking again to go up early 2-0. Fernandez refused to let Sabalenka stretch the lead firing a crosscourt pass that helped her break back in the fourth game.




Festering frustration erupted in Sabalenka after failing to convert a break point in the fifth game the Belarusian cracked her Wilson racquet on the changeover in disgust.

That outburst seemed to sooth Sabalenka a bit. Pressuring Fernandez with the depth of her drives, Sabalenka sent shoulder-high topspin coaxing an errant reply to break for 5-4.




By then, Sabalenka was showing plenty of positive emotion urging fans to get behind her after driving winners. Sabalenka served out the second set at love with a fine delayed serve-and-volley winner.

A trip to the US Open final would come down to one set.

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How would Fernandez, who had fought past Osaka, Kerber and Svitolina in three-setters and spent nearly three hours longer on court than Sabalenka, hold up physically.

Pressure spiked early in the set, but Sabalenka stood up to it rallying from love-30 down in a hard-fought hold to level after four games.




A double fault and a wayward backhand from the Belarusian gave Fernandez a break point—and created crowd buzz—in the sixth game. Sabalenka paused to let the roar subside then ripped a 113 mph serve winner. Still, Fernandez would not flinch. Crowding the baseline, she flicked back returns and coaxed another overcooked drive from the second seed breaking for 4-2.




Answering with triple break point, Sabalenka succumbed to her nerves with a couple of erratic returns including a forehand return off a second serve than nearly knocked the Mercedes star logo right off the net. At that point, Sabalenka was only three of 10 on break points but she smacked a diagonal forehand return to break back.

Fernandez held at 15 for 5-4 and then Sabalenka flinched. The Belarusian spit up successive double faults swiping her Wilson racquet at the court in disgust. When Sabalenka sprayed a final forehand, a joyous Fernandez was through to the final in two hours, 21 minutes.

 

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