NEW YORK — Even in an era of unprecedented depth on the women’s tennis tour, where it seems like two dozen or so players come to Grand Slams thinking they have a legitimate chance to take the trophy, Leylah Fernandez should have had no reason to believe that she was among them.
After all, the 19-year-old Canadian was just at the beginning of her career with no real résumé to speak of against top-ranked players and no match experience on a stage as big as Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But as the U.S. Open has unfolded, the petite 5-foot-6 Fernandez hasn’t merely taken on the reputation of a giant killer. Her game, it turns out, is larger than life — it’s carried her within one win of the U.S. Open title.
“Thanks to the New York crowd. Thanks to you, I was able to win,” Fernandez said during an on-court interview.
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Ranked outside the top 70 at the start of this tournament, Fernandez continued one of the most impressive runs to a Grand Slam final in recent memory, backing up previous wins over two other top-5 players by beating world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday night 7-6, 4-6, 6-4. She will play for the championship on Saturday against either Greece’s Maria Sakkari or 18-year-old British qualifier Emma Raducanu.
When Fernandez arrived in New York, she had just one career win over a top-10 player, beating Belinda Bencic in a team event in February 2020. Now, in the span of a mere seven days, she has knocked out Sabalenka, No. 3 Naomi Osaka, No. 5 Elina Svitolina and three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber — all in three-set epics where she was the more confident and composed player in crunch time.
Should Fernandez win the title, it would be reminiscent of Jelena Ostapenko’s out-of-nowhere victory at the French Open in 2017, but even more surprising and extraordinary given the quality and variety of players she has had to face round after round.
Unlike those wins earlier in the tournament, though, Fernandez did not have to play spectacular, spellbinding tennis to beat Sabalenka. Instead, she had to change gears and remain solid enough to test the patience and the nerve of the big-hitting Belarusian, who obliged with 52 unforced errors.
“I would say I destroyed myself,” Sabalenka said.
Some of Sabalenka’s shots were so wild by the end, it seemed like all Fernandez had to do was keep the ball in the court. And that’s exactly what she did after Sabalenka, serving to stay in the match, double faulted twice in a row to give her three match points. After Fernandez put a simple backhand return in play, Sabalenka lashed wildly at the ball with a forehand that sailed a foot long. Fernandez dropped to her knees in victory, becoming the youngest major finalist since Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004.
The 23-year-old Sabalenka, in the midst of her best year as a professional, entered the semifinals as the favorite to win the title but still with questions about whether her all-out, go-for-broke style would ultimately hold up at the tail end of a Grand Slam when nerves are frayed and points are precious.
For Sabalenka, facing a player as inexperienced as Fernandez was a massive opportunity — and one that she seemed poised to take early on when her power off the ground pushed Fernandez into the corners and produced enough winners for a 4-1 lead.
But as Fernandez adjusted to the pace of her opponent’s shots and started using it to change the direction of the ball, the errors started to come off Sabalenka’s racquet and the match began to tighten.
Then, for Sabalenka, it quickly fell apart. After winning the first two points of the first set tiebreaker, Sabalenka let things slide away with a mess of mistakes including two returns off second serves that never found the court, a double fault, a short ball forehand that she buried into the net, a standard forehand from the middle of the court that sailed long and an awkward overhead near the service line that she shanked well wide.
“This is what we call pressure, and that’s why I’m a little disappointed about this match because I had a lot of opportunities and didn’t use it,” Sabalenka said. “This is life. If you aren’t using your opportunities, someone else will.”
Despite continuing to spray the ball throughout the second set and appearing at times on the verge of letting the match fall apart completely, Sabalenka managed to break Fernandez late in the second set and immediately hold serve to send it into a third.
But ultimately, Sabalenka’s desire to go for big shots — and the frequency with which they missed — forced her to play catch-up in the third set, from down a break early to back on serve. But it never seemed like her game was going to remain solid for long enough stretches to put the onus on Fernandez.
“At the beginning of the tournament I was out of shape, wasn’t playing well the tournament before, wasn’t playing well in practice and I didn’t have any expectations so I was playing simple,” Sabalenka said. “Maybe today I should have done the same and see what happens and because of the expectation and all this pressure I was maybe trying to make her move and going closer to the lines and (making) mistakes. Maybe I have to go back and start from the simple game.”
But perhaps Fernandez had something to do with that, too. At this U.S. Open, it seems as if Fernandez can do no wrong. At the very least, she plays as if that’s what she believes. So far, she’s been right.
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken