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The Top 10 Matches of 2021, No. 2: Leylah Fernandez d. Elina Svitolina, US Open quarterfinal
This year’s Open was one great match after another, but nothing topped the show that the 18-year-old Fernandez and a stubborn Svitolina put on in the quarterfinals.
Published Dec 09, 2021
“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 during 18-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez’s 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) win over Elina Svitolina in Arthur Ashe Stadium back in September. Every day at this year’s Open, it seemed, there was new Match of the Tournament, but the quarterfinal between Fernandez and Svitolina wouldn’t be topped. While Fernandez wouldn’t win the title, her performances over the two weeks wouldn’t be topped, either.
Fernandez, a 5’6” 18-year-old from Canada, played the game on the short hop in New York. Sometimes, when she was whiplashing an opponent from one corner to the other and giving her no to time to breathe, let alone recover, she looked as if she was turning the court into an oversized ping-pong table. Or was it a boxing ring? Her game was all quick jabs and left hooks.
WATCH: Fernandez continued her magical momentum through the fourth round of Indian Wells, upsetting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova along the way.
When her opponent hit a second serve, Fernandez moved in and punched her return past her, before she had a chance to finish her motion. When her opponent hit a ground stroke near the baseline, Fernandez, channeling Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber, crouched down and took the ball right off the bounce, without backing up. More remarkable was the way she drove the ball hard and deep, and directed it to specific spots. Over and over, without missing. It was jarringly exciting to watch.
At the Open, Fernandez beat two former No. 1s, Kerber and Naomi Osaka, but she saved her best for 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 the Ukrainian, who made Fernandez earn every point down the stretch.
Svitolina would have won this match against virtually any other opponent, on virtually any other day. Those of us in the crowd kept waiting for Fernandez’s timing to falter, for the shanks to start flowing or the nerves to show. But they never did. Fernandez made every putaway and found every opening for a passing shot.
Fernandez may not keep timing the ball that well forever, but hers is the type of fearless-but-not-reckless tennis that many of us having been hoping to see ever since the baseline era began.
How did the 73rd-ranked player in the world get this far, so suddenly and thrillingly? Even she couldn’t tell you.
“I don’t know why finally my game is clicking,” Fernandez 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.”
Even more than her game and her timing, what stood out about Fernandez most was her relentless belief.
“From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone, anyone who is in front of me,” she said. “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’m not surprised of anything that's happening right now.”
Fernandez said her father always emphasized having fun on the court, and in New York her enjoyment reverberated in a way that was reminiscent of her fellow lefty Rafael Nadal and fellow on-the-riser Jimmy Connors. Fernandez may not keep timing the ball that well forever, but hers is the type of fearless-but-not-reckless tennis that many of us having been hoping to see ever since the baseline era began.
It’s a game I was happy not to be familiar with, and that I’m hoping to see much more of in the future.