Teenager Leylah Fernandez provides another shocking upset
What is teenager Leylah Fernandez’s biggest challenge as she guns for the top of the tennis world?
It is telling that Fernandez didn’t list Naomi Osaka or Angelique Kerber or any other top player when she was asked that question at the start of the U.S. Open. Instead, she listed the things she has had to give up as she pursues a tennis career.
"I don’t have a normal teenage life to go to school, make friends or to the prom or graduation," Fernandez said in an interview on the WTA website. "Those are the things you see in movies and you think, oh, I want to kind of go through that and see how it is.
"But I made a decision that [going] pro was my No. 1 thing and I did the necessary sacrifices to keep training and just try to improve every day."
Those sacrifices have paid off this week with an absolutely magical run.
Two days after knocking off No. 3 Osaka, she came up big again against a multiple Grand Slam champion. Fernandez rallied from a set down to defeat No. 16 Kerber, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, on Sunday to move to the quarterfinals.
Fernandez, who will turn 19 on Monday, will play Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist and No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina on Tuesday for a semifinal spot. Svitolina is the second-highest-ranked player left after the exits of world number one Ashleigh Barty and Osaka.
Tennis great and ESPN commentator Chris Evert is a believer after watching Fernandez outlast Kerber.
"I did not see this coming," she said. "I saw the Naomi Osaka match coming, but when I saw she was playing Angelique Kerber, I didn’t think she could duplicate that standard of tennis . . . This is her tournament. This is a Cinderella story for her."
The 73rd-ranked Fernandez isn’t the only young player having a fairy-tale-like tournament.
She is one of three 18-year-olds still playing. Emma Raducanu of Britain will play Monday in a fourth-round match. Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, a five-set winner over Peter Gojowczyk on Sunday, is into the quarterfinals.
"To have so many young players coming through is just really great for the game, because it just shows how strong this next generation is," said Raducanu, who next plays American Shelby Rogers. "Having so many young players, I think we all inspire each other to play better."
There definitely was something inspiring in the way Fernandez battled back to beat Kerber.
Just as she did against Osaka at Arthur Ashe Stadium two days earlier, Fernandez dropped the opening set and found herself trailing in the second. This time, Kerber was up a break at 4-2 when Fernandez came back to force a tiebreaker before winning the set. Kerber’s energy seemed to fade in the third and the teen took charge of the match.
"Yeah, I think she played also one of her best matches in her career, and she had nothing to lose," Kerber said. "I think at the end it was just two, three points which decide the match. She took it in her hands."
Indeed, Fernandez has nothing to lose. She has come further than anyone — except herself — expected her to. And at this point, no one seems to be having more fun on the court.
There are those times when she wonders what it would be like to be an ordinary teenager. But not right now.
"I did have to pinch myself a little bit to see that it actually happened," Fernandez said when asked how she felt about beating two great players in a row. ". . . I chose this profession, and I want to enjoy it as much as possible."