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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, September 3, 2021


18-year-old Leylah Fernandez shocked defending champion Naomi Osaka 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4 to reach the US Open fourth round for the first time.

Photo credit: Garrett Ellwood/USTA/US Open

Bouncing on her toes behind the baseline, Leylah Fernandez looked like a boxer ready to rule the ring.

A fearless Fernandez relied on fast hands and fierce appetite for the fight to score the biggest knockout of her life.

More: Alcaraz Stuns Tsitsipas

The 18-year-old Fernandez dethroned defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4 in a stunning upset to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career.

Empowered by strong self belief—and spurred on to battle by the energetic Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd—Fernandez broke when Osaka served for the match at 7-5, 6-5, broke to start the final set and lifted her level and intensity as Osaka emotionally imploded at times tossing her racquet to the court and rushing through one service game as if just trying to end it.

Electrifying the New York night crowd, the Canadian left-hander rode a wave of energy to a monumental win snapping Osaka's 16-match Grand Slam winning streak in an audacious performance.

"I guess I wanted to stay on court a little bit longer and I wanted to put on a show for everybody here," World No. 73 Fernandez told ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez in her on-court interview. "One hour was not enough for me on court.

"From the very beginning right before the match I knew I was able to win. Honestly I wasn’t focusing on Naomi, I was only focusing on myself and what I needed to do."

For Osaka, sadly, the joy of competing seems to be gone for now.

Osaka withdrew from Roland Garros in June revealing she's been battling depression and anxiety.

In her post-match presser, Osaka responded to all of the English-language questions then grew tearful answering a question from a Japanese journalist and said she's not sure when she will play again.

"I feel like for me recently, like, when I win I don't feel happy. I feel more like a relief," Osaka said before tearing up. "And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don't think that's normal. I didn't really want to cry, but basically I feel like...

"Basically I feel like I'm kind of at this point where I'm trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don't know when I'm going to play my next tennis match. Sorry."

Vocal New York fans got behind the Canadian, who is listed at 5-foot-6, and Fernandez repeatedly pumped her fist and waved he arms exhorting fans to make more noise. 

"[The crowd] made a huge difference," Fernandez said. "Thanks to New York and New York fans over here they helped me get a win."

Two-time US Open champion Osaka did not face a break point until Fernandez broke her for the first time to level the second set. Osaka seemed shaken by the teenager's willingness to straddle the baseline and sometimes take the four-time champion's vaunted serve on the rose as well as the buzzing crowd which was won over by the teenager's spunky spirit and willingness to play in your face tennis against the champion.

Left-handers have been Osaka's personal kryptonite this summer: She suffered her third straight loss to a lefty following her Tokyo Olympics defeat to former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova and her Cincinnati setback to Swiss Jil Teichmann.

Tonight, Osaka would have been wise to take a few steps to her left when returning on the ad side to prevent Fernandez's lefty slider serve from hugging her hip and jamming her. Fernandez's average first serve speed was just 97 mph, but she was sliding the slice wide on the ad side dragging Osaka out of position then banging her first strike early to get ahead in rallies.

"I can't even tell you how it feels to return it because I don't think I could have returned a ball against a righty today either," Osaka said. "I'm pretty sure my return stats were really horrendous.

"It wasn't like she was serving bombs, so I'm not really sure what to say. But I do think her ad side serve was nice."

Though she fought hard, Osaka wasn't as sharp making tactical adjustments as her opponent. Ultimately, Fernandez fought harder and played with more passion and poise at crunch time.

Teenagers owned Ashe Stadium in a historic day.

Speaking to ESPN after the match, Fernandez said she was inspired by fellow 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz's upset of third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas that preceded her star turn on Ashe Stadium.

"Honestly the Alcaraz match gave me motivation and gave me the energy to do the same," Fernandez said. "I saw his match, I saw the way he won and I’m like I’m gonna do that next."

The Australian Open champion handcuffed Fernandez provoking a netted error to break for 6-5.

The reigning champion rolled through 11 straight points pounding down an ace to close the 37-minute opening set in style.

Neither woman would give up much ground as the second set popped with tension. Osaka spun a backhand winner down the line breaking for 6-5.

Serving for the fourth round, the reigning champion could not close. Osaka sprayed a forehand wide as the 18-year-old Canadian screamed breaking for the first time to force a second-set tie breaker.

Pressure and Fernandez's skill straddling the baseline taking the ball on the rise and redirecting the Japanese's blasts turned the breaker into a one-sided affair. Osaka compounded successive errors flinging her Yonex racquet to the court as Fernandez went up 4-0. After another error Osaka again slammed the stick to the court going down love-5. Dissolving in a spree of errors, Osaka gave Fernandez a fistful of set points at 6-1. On her second set point, Fernandez slide the wide serve raising a clenched fist toward the sky leveling after one hour, 22 minutes.

Osaka wrapped a white towel over her Nike visor and briefly left the court for a bathroom break. Fernandez left the court as well and returned afterward.

Though Fernandez is contesting just her seventh Grand Slam, she showed more focus down the stretch. Trying to reset, Osaka rushed through points to start the final set. Spraying a forehand and pasting a flat backhand into the net, Osaka gifted the opening break to the young Canadian, who was pumping her fist showing plenty of positive emotion.

A frustrated Osaka picked up a stray ball and belted it in disgust earning a code violation warning from chair umpire Alison Hughes, who hadn't acted on the racquet tosses in the tie breaker.

Prowling the baseline to pounce on Osaka’s second serve, Fernandez slammed a return right back at Osaka. By then, Osaka was rushing through her serve points barely taking anytime between points. Still, Osaka, who looked almost disinterested in that game, dug in and fought back holding for 1-2.

Pressuring in the sixth game, Osaka again over-hit sending her forehand beyond the baseline as a fired-up Fernandez held for 4-2.

Serving at 3-5 deuce, Osaka paused for a moment then threw down an ace for game point.

Unfazed, Fernandez fired a forehand return winner. This time, Osaka elevated painting the sideline with a forehand and scalding her 15th ace of the evening to hold for 4-5 to force the teenager to serve it out.

When her moment of truth arrived, Fernandez did not flinch. Curling an ace out wide, the Canadian went up 30-0. Fernandez froze Osaka with a drop shot for triple match point and closed in two hours, four minutes.

Knocking off the reigning US Open champion, Fernandez will face another in 2016 Flushing Meadows winner Angelique Kerber for a quarterfinal spot.

Afterward, Fernandez recalled another famed lefty, five-time US Open champion Jimmy Connors, when she spoke about her desire to deliver a show for fans.

"It will be a battle; we’re just gonna gave fun," Fernandez aid. "I’m gonna put on a show like I did tonight. We’ll see how it goes."


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