Dreams have become extraordinary realities for Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu at the U.S. Open.
That’s because the two teenagers are through to the women’s final on Saturday after major upsets in the semifinals Thursday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Fernandez first dispatched No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4. Then Raducanu, who has become the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open Era, eliminated Maria Sakkari, 6-1, 6-4.
The Canadian Fernandez turned 19 this week, Britain's Raducanu is 18. Both have tennis IQs well above their age. And to think that Raducanu had to win three qualifying matches just to get into the final Grand Slam of the year. But she clearly overwhelmed the much improved Sakkari, especially with return of serve.
Fernandez had Nets coach and fellow Canadian Steve Nash sitting in her players’ box
"I have no idea," Fernandez replied when asked on court how she has been able to make this six-match run. "I would say thanks to the New York crowd, they never gave up on me. Years and years of hard work, tears and blood on the court and off."
She even gave Nash credit.
"A huge inspiration," Fernandez said. "My dad used him as inspiration for a whole month once."
Ranked 73rd in the world, Fernandez won her first WTA title at Monterrey, Mexico, this year and got direct entry into the Open. But she had a tough road to hoe. She defeated two-time U.S.Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round after dropping the first set. She followed that with a win over three-time major champion Angelique Kerber and followed that with a win over No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina.
Sabalenka has proven herself to be one of the best players on tour over the past four seasons. But she has often struggled at majors. She reached her first major semifinal at Wimbledon in July, when she fell to former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova. Sabalenka served first, held, broke Fernandez, then held again for a 3-0 lead. But Fernandez appeared unfazed. Her speed and effortless power were matching Sabalenka stroke for stroke and her ability to return serve might be the best of any woman on tour right now.
A telling game was Fernandez serving in the sixth game of the first set with Sabalenka up 4-1. Fernandez served three aces and a service winner, a sort of announcement that she was going to be around all night. Fernandez gained a break in the seventh game and fought off a break point in the next game to make it 4-4. The "Let’s go Leylah" chants started in earnest but it was apparent from the start the crowd was on her side.
Still, Sabalenka had a set point on her racket with Fernandez serving the 12th game. But a forehand error, one of many off that wing, kept Fernandez in the match and on to the tiebreak. It was there that Sabalenka showed considerable weakness. On the fourth and fifth points on her serve, she made feeble forehand errors, letting Fernandez take the lead that she would not give up.
Sabalenka got a break to start the second set and it was becoming apparent that her strength was starting to have an effect, though she had to weather a break of her own serve in the fourth game. Serving in the 10th game, Fernandez failed to win a point with Sabalenka putting away the set with a volley winner, looking more and more imposing.
It didn’t last.
Fernandez somehow started to look fresher though Sabalenka didn't seem to sag. It seemed as if the match was on Sabalenka’s racket, and she was alternately hitting winners or making poor errors. Fernandez broke her in the sixth game, then gave up the break in the seventh. It was just getting too close to call.
Then Sabalenka fell apart serving 4-5 down in the third. A bad backhand, weak double fault, a second double fault, another error and Fernandez was through to the final.