US Open teenage finalist Leylah Fernandez says she was told to ‘stop playing tennis and focus on school’
It’s a US Open final tennis fans could have never predicted. Two unseeded teenagers – Britain’s Emma Raducanu and Canada’s Leylah Fernandez – brimming with confidence and energy and are similar in so many ways.
Fernandez, who only turned 19 on Monday and is ranked 73 in the world, made it through a semi-final filled with momentum swings to edge No 2 Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 in two hours and 21 minutes.
“They are both young. They play fearless,” 17th seed Maria Sakkari, who Raducanu beat in straight sets to reach the final, said about the teenagers. “They have nothing to lose playing against us.”
But who is Leylah Fernandez?
She was born in Montreal to a Filipino-Canadian mother and Ecuadorian father; the family moved to Florida after Fernandez had success as a junior at the age of 12.
This came despite being dropped from Tennis Quebec’s development programme when she was seven-years-old and being told by teachers to forget becoming a professional and focus on school.
“A lot of people doubted me, my family and my dreams,” said Fernandez after her semi-final win.
“I remember one teacher, which was actually very funny – at the time it wasn’t, but now I’m laughing.
“She told me to stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school.”
Fernandez says she carries that rejection with her into every match and uses it as motivation, along with the other challenges her family faced along the road to helping her realise her dream.
Her father Jorge, a former soccer player who knew little about tennis, stepped in and became her coach, instilling in her an unshakable self-belief.
While her father has been offering advice and inspiration from home, the teenager’s mother and sister have been cheering her on from the stands.
Raducanu and Fernandez met each other for the first time when they were both playing in under-12 tournaments and bonded over their shared connection to Canada.
In 2018 they played in the Wimbledon junior tournament’s second round.
On Saturday, they will share a court for the first time in a tour-level match.
Fernandez’s best past showing at a Grand Slam was getting to the third round at Roland Garros last year.
In Thursday’s match Sabalenka started off looking in control, claiming 12 of the first 14 points for a 3-0 lead.
Just eight minutes had elapsed and most spectators were yet to reach their seats. Not until later did the 20,000-plus in the Arthur Ashe Stadium rally the fist-aloft Fernandez with chants of “Let’s go, Leylah! Let’s go!” accompanied by clapping.
At the end of the first set and again in the third, it was Sabalenka who let things get away from her. In the last game, she double-faulted twice in a row to set up match point, then sailed a forehand long.
“This,” Sabalenka said, “is what we call pressure.”
But this pressure did not seem to be affecting her young opponent.
“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,” she said.
This was the left-handed Fernandez’s fourth consecutive three-set victory over a seeded opponent.
First came No 3 Naomi Osaka, the 2018 and 2020 US Open champion. Then came No 16 Angelique Kerber, the 2016 champ. That was followed by No 5 Elina Svitolina and Sabalenka.
“There’s no limit to what I can do. I’m just glad that right now everything’s going well,” said Fernandez, who could give Canada its second US Open women’s title in quick succession, following Bianca Andreescu’s triumph in 2019.
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