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Osaka, Kerber, Svitolina: Upset-minded Leylah Fernandez is taking her shots on the rise, and the US Open by storm
“I expected that one day my game is going to come through, and that I’m going to be on the big stage,” said the 19-year-old Canadian.
Published Sep 08, 2021
TenniStory: Leo Davidov, the youngster who doesn't hit a backhand.
“He plays a game with which I’m not familiar.” That’s what one golf legend, Bobby Jones, once said of a younger golf legend, Jack Nicklaus, when he saw him swing a club for the first time.
Those words were in my head as I watched 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez beat Elina Svitolina, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday afternoon. Every day at this US Open, it seems, we get a new match of the tournament, and Fernandez vs. Svitolina upped the ante in terms of quality and suspense once again. But until now I hadn’t seen a player who seemed as if she was reinventing tennis in front of our eyes.
I’m not surprised of anything that's happening right now. Leylah Fernandez
Fernandez plays the game on the short hop. Sometimes, when she’s whiplashing an opponent from one corner to the other and giving her no to time to breathe, let alone recover, she looks as if she’s turning the court into an oversized ping-pong table. Or is it a boxing ring? Her game is all quick jabs and left hooks.
When her opponent hits a second serve, Fernandez will move in and, with almost no backswing, punch her return down the line for a winner, before the other player has a chance to finish her serve. When her opponent hits a ground stroke near her baseline, Fernandez, channeling Aga Radwanska and Angelique Kerber, will crouch down and take the ball right off the bounce, without backing up. It’s like she’s playing with an invisible wall right behind her.
What’s more remarkable is the way she drives the ball hard and deep off the hop, and directs it to specific spots. Over and over, without missing. Fernandez plays ultra-aggressive tennis and always looks to attack, but she doesn’t win with power. She wins with laser-like timing, by robbing her opponent of time, and by creating strange new angles from the middle of the court—she must have a protractor in her racquet bag. For someone just 5’6”, she gets a lot of pace without a lot of motion. It’s jarringly exciting to watch.
So far in Flushing Meadows, Fernandez has beaten two former No. 1s, Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, but she may have topped herself with her win over Svitolina, which kept a packed Ashe audience captivated for two-and-a-half hours. Fernandez hit 42 winners to Svitolina’s 32, and was 19 of 24 at the net. She survived a fierce and nearly flawless comeback from 2-5 down in the third by Svitolina, who made Fernandez earn every point down the stretch. I kept waiting for her timing to falter, for the shanks to start coming off her frame or the nerves to show. But they never did. She made every putaway and found every opening for a passing shot.
How did the 73rd-ranked player in the world get here? At her home tournament in Canada this summer, Fernandez lost to world No. 121 Harriet Dart in the first round in straight sets. In Cincinnati three weeks ago, she lost to Alison Riske 6-2, 6-2. Don’t ask Fernandez how she went from those defeats to the US Open semifinals.
“I don’t know why finally my game is clicking,” she said. “The past few months…I’ve been working hard, training super well. My coach, my dad, is saying be patient, have confidence in your game, it will show in matches. I’m glad it finally did.”
Fernandez’s father, Jorge, a former soccer player from Ecuador, is her coach, and he feeds her tactics before every match. Maybe her never-back-up style is something he instilled in her, but until now had always been a little too difficult to pull off—not that it took a long time; she is only 19. (She turned 19 on Monday.) What stands out about Fernandez most, though, is her relentless positivity and belief.
“From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone, anyone who is in front of me,” she said this week. “Even playing different sports, I was always that competitive, saying I’m going to win against them, I’m going to win against my dad in soccer, even though that’s like impossible. I’ve always had that belief. I've always, like, tried to use that in every match that I go on.”
“I expected that one day my tennis game is going to come through and that I’m going to be on the big stage in front of a big crowd playing against big players and also getting the wins.”
“I’m not surprised of anything that's happening right now.”
Fernandez says her father always emphasized having fun on the court, and her enjoyment reverberates in a way that’s similar to her fellow lefty Rafael Nadal and fellow on-the-riser Jimmy Connors. She may not be able to keep timing the ball this well forever, and she may not go from No. 73 to the Top 5 right away. But Fernandez’s is the type of fearless-but-not-reckless tennis they many of us having been hoping to see ever since the baseline era began.
It’s a game I’m happy not to be familiar with, and that I’m hoping to see much more of in the future.