A Trust In Herself And Her Game Lifts Fernandez Into US Open Semifinals

Leylah Fernandez (photo: Mike Lawrence/USTA)

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, September 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Leylah Fernandez‘s 19th birthday party at the US Open carried over from Monday into Tuesday afternoon – and with more than 20,000 fans packing Arthur Ashe Stadium, by the end of her epic quarterfinal, everyone including the main attraction was in a mood to celebrate.

On the biggest stage in tennis, the 73rd-ranked Fernandez from Canada has become one of the biggest stars of the 2021 US Open. Pretty impressive when one considers that she started out playing her first-round match against Croatia’s Ana Konjuh in the cozy confines of Court 14 in front of a few hundred hard-core spectators on Opening Day last week. Then, after knocking out defending US Open champion and No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka of Japan plus 2016 US Open champion and No. 16 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany in the past two rounds, the Montreal-born Fernandez defeated No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), to advance to Thursday evening’s semifinal round.

Of note, Fernandez becomes the youngest women’s semifinalist at the US Open since 18-year-old Maria Sharapova in 2005, and the youngest player to defeat two WTA Top Five players at the same major since 17-year-old Serena Williams at the 1999 US Open.

In a match that lasted two hours and 25 minutes, 68 of those minutes were devoted to the third set alone, and it provided for a dramatic finish in which Fernandez dropped to her knees, bowed her head for just a moment to soak in the applause, and only then began to realize the significance of what she had accomplished. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so she did a little of both. Why not? She had earned her moment in the spotlight in the biggest match of her young pro career.

“I honestly have no idea what I’m feeling right now,” Fernandez told ESPN‘s Rennae Stubbs during an on-court interview. “I was so nervous. … Thank you so much to the crowd, cheering me on. You helped me push through today.”

At 5-all in the third set, both Svitolina and Fernandez held serve to force a decisive tie break. After Fernandez took an early 4-1 lead, Svitolina came back to level it at 5-5. However, Fernandez wasn’t ready to give in. Instead, she hit a running forehand winner from the baseline that caught the top of the net on its way to landing just inside the sideline, which set up match point. Then, Fernandez served out the victory as Svitolina’s return sailed long. The loss ended Svitolina’s nine-match winning streak.

Later, during her press conference, Fernandez called her quarterfinal match “one of the hardest, not only tennis-wise but also mentally and emotionally.” She further commented: “Svitolina is a great player, great fighter. I was glad I was able to fight in the first set. In the second set she upped her level and I unfortunately made a few mistakes on key moments. I’m glad I was able to recuperate for the third set. The tiebreaker, too. A little bit lucky at 5-All, but I’ll take all the luck I can get. I was glad I was able to push through the finish line.”

On a happy note, Fernandez said she received birthday greetings from Hall of Fame great Billie Jean King and 2009 US Open men’s champion Juan Martín del Potro. “[Billie Jean] told me to go out on court and have fun and keep going after my shots – and I did just that today. … So, that obviously worked! With Juan Martín del Potro, it was just pure luck bumping into him. We just had a nice little chat. He wished me luck and we took a picture, then went our merry way. It was awesome to see them and meet them. They honestly inspired me to do well today.”

Meanwhile, Aryna Sabalenka, the highest remaining seed at No. 2, hasn’t played in any epic matches during the New York fortnight. Instead, she’s been all business in reaching her second straight major semifinal following her Wimbledon success earlier this summer. Finally getting a chance to play on Arthur Ashe Stadium Tuesday evening, the World No. 2 from Belarus reached her first US Open semifinal with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over No. 8 seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, the reigning French Open champion, in just 85 minutes.

As she so often does, Sabalenka relied on her power game, which produced six aces and 22 winners. Plus, she won 76 percent (29 of 38) of her first-serve points and won half of Krejcikova’s service points. Krejcikova simply looked spent from her late-night victory over Garbiñe Muguruza that ended early Monday morning, in which she had to be helped off the court due to dizziness.

When Sabalenka was asked by ESPN‘s Mary Joe Fernandez what it meant to reach her first US Open semifinal, she smile at the question and replied: “It means a lot. I love to be in New York, and the US Open is one of my favorite Slams. I watched her matches and saw that she is playing really well. She’s really consistent this year. I tried to focus on myself and tried to put as many balls back in play as I could. I think it worked really well today.”

Sabalenka’s triumph assured there will be four different major women’s winners this season. Next, she will be the fourth straight Top 20 opponent to face Fernandez when they meet in the semifinal round on Thursday evening. It will be their first meeting.

“It’s nothing to lose for her,” Sabalenka said during her post-match press conference. “She’s a great player. She’s fighting for every point. I was practicing today and we didn’t watch the court because we heard the crowd yelling for her. It will be an interesting one.”

Van de Zandschulp’s improbable US Open run ends

Dutch qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp’s improbable quarterfinal run at the US Open ended with a four-set loss to former finalist and this year’s No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev.

The World No. 2 from Russia beat the 144th-ranked qualifier 6-3, 6-0, 4-6, 7-5. No one, not even van de Zandschulp envisioned that he would go from qualies to quarterfinalist. “I don’t really – how do I say it? For me, it’s tough to believe still that I was here in the quarters and that I make such an impact on [Dutch fans].”

Van de Zandschulp rallied from a slow start, which the 25-year-old described this way: “I have to say the first two sets went by quickly, I think. Maybe too quickly.”

Although he hit 34 winners, van de Zandschulp also committed 32 unforced errors – 22 of them from the forehand. Medvedev outpointed his opponent 121-92. There would be no come-from-behind win for the Dutchman Tuesday afternoon, something he had done in each of his six earlier victories at the US Open starting with the first round of qualifying two weeks ago.

“I think I played a good third and fourth set,” van de Zandschulp said. “Yeah, in the fourth he served amazing. Yeah, I think at the end of the match he’s the guy who deserved to win today.”

In the end, it was Medvedev, now a three-time US Open semifinalist who cruised to Friday’s semifinals thanks to his experience combined with his superior serving and shotmaking. To wit: The 6-foot-5-inch (198 cm) Medvedev hit 13 aces and 19 winners, and was efficient in garnering 83 percent (54 of 65) of his first-serve points. He broke van de Zandschulp seven times during the two hour and 23-minute match on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

While Medvedev called his win a “tough match,” he described his return to the semifinals this way: “First two sets were kind of under control. He was missing some balls, some important points. So was feeling easy, I should say.

“Then third and fourth set was really tough. He played top level, served really big. Was breaking the rhythm a little bit, so was really tough set. I’m really happy that in the fourth I managed to, first of all, hold my serve really easily and managed to break him in the end where I had few opportunities to do before also.

“Yeah, really good tactical match and I liked it. Very good.”

Next, Medvedev will oppose No 12 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, who won by retirement over No. 55 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, leading 6-3, 3-1 after an hour and eight minutes. Alcaraz’s retirement came a game after he received a visit from a trainer to deal with an upper leg issue, which Alcaraz later disclosed in press as his right adductor. Alcaraz came into the quarterfinal after playing consecutive five-set matches.

The win advanced Auger-Aliassime, 12-3 in majors this year, into his first major semifinal and he’s also the first Canadian man to reach the US Open semifinals. Additionally, he’s the youngest US Open men’s semifinalist since Juan Martín del Potro in 2009.

“It’s an amazing milestone,” Auger-Aliassime said during his on-court interview. “It’s been a fantastic tournament for me. Of course it was a weird ending today. But in the end, I’m through. I’ll have a chance to play on Friday against one of the best players in the world right now to have a chance to be in my first Grand Slam final. It’s amazing, I’m happy I’m through and I’ll try to win the next one.”

Around the US Open

Tuesday’s US Open results

Wednesday’s US Open order of play

By the numbers

• With her quarterfinal victory against Barbora Krejcikova Wednesday evening, Aryna Sabalenka now has three Top 10 wins this year: Against Krejcikova at the US Open, Simona Halep in Stuttgart and Ashleigh Barty in Madrid.

• With her win over World No. 5 Elina Svitolina, No. 73 Leylah Fernandez has recorded victories over three straight Top 20 opponents: Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber and Svitolina. She will face a fourth consecutive Top 20 foe when she plays Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals on Thursday evening.

Botic van de Zandschulp came into Wednesday’s quarterfinal match against Daniil Medvedev with exactly the same number wins in majors this year as Medvedev, 16. That is, of course, if one counts qualifying rounds, something van de Zandschulp has plenty of experience.

• Twenty-time major champion Roger Federer, 40, is older than the combined age of Felix Auger-Aliassime (21) and Carlos Alcaraz (18), who met in Wedneday’s second men’s quarterfinal match.

“Quotable …”

“I actually think I have a very bad record with night matches. When I found out [Sunday] I’m playing night, I was not happy at all because I’m an early morning person. I still haven’t figured out how I have to plan my day.

“But [my coach] was like, before the match, I’m giving you my word that after this match, you’ll change your mind from night matches, and he’s right.

“Now, well, I can say that it happened, that I played tennis at 2:30 in the morning.”

– No. 17 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, whose Round of 16 match against Bianca Andreescu, which she won 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-3, lasted three hours and 31 minutes and didn’t finish until 2:13 a.m. Tuesday morning.