Unseeded Leylah Fernandez rolls to U.S. Open semifinals after a thriller in quarters

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It was the biggest point of the match, probably the biggest of Leylah Fernandez’s young career.

The third-set tiebreaker was tied at 5, and Fernandez was on her heels after squandering a 4-1 advantage. The point looked lost. Elina Svitolina, the Ukranian opponent, had sent Fernandez into a scramble, and it would’ve been excusable in that moment – after all Fernandez already accomplished at the Open, after another two-plus hours of roller-coaster tennis – if she couldn’t catch up to Svitolina’s volley.

But Fernandez chased it down. She ran the baseline and somehow powered a lefty forehand winner with enough power for it to clip the net and finish its course to the far other side of the court.

Seconds later, Fernandez won match point and officially defeated Svitolina. She then collapsed to the court in a celebratory cry. Her Cinderella Story continued into the semis. It was something she envisioned for a long time.

“I’ve imagined myself playing on every tournament, every Grand Slam, at the biggest stage. When I was younger, since I used Justine Henin as a great example, I would imagine myself playing against her,” said Fernandez, who became the youngest semifinalist in the Open since Maria Sharapova in 2005. “I would also imagine myself playing against Serena and Venus, and the past few years playing against Osaka in a big tournament.

“When I was younger, I’ve always seen myself being in a big stadium in front of so many people and just having fun on the court.”

One day after Fernandez’s 19th birthday, the unseeded Canadian conquered another top player in the quarterfinal Tuesday, outlasting No. 5 Svitolina, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. She next faces the winner No. 8 Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic and No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. And at this point, nobody should be surprised if Fernandez triumphs.

She has already toppled two former Open champions – Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber. She has captured the full attention and embrace of the crowd at Flushing, which helped elevate Fernandez’s matches into marquee events. Without any Americans remaining in this tournament, Fernandez is the spunky fan favorite.

Her family box is also energized and buoyant, featuring her mother and coach. Fernandez’s father, a former soccer player from Ecuador, stayed away from Flushing “for personal reasons,” but the young tennis star credited his daily phone advice for pushing her through matches.

“I called him right after the match when I went to the locker room. He honestly told me that I put him through hell and back with this match. …He wanted to stay back in Florida, enjoy his time alone. I respect that,” Fernandez said. “But I also think he trusted in me and in my game that I was going to do great things in New York, that I was going to follow his game plan, that I’m going to figure all the solutions out from any problem that I encounter.”

Like her victory over Kerber days prior, Fernandez’s first major quarterfinal provided drama. Svitolina isn’t a big name in tennis – mostly because the 26-year-old hasn’t broken through in majors yet – but the Ukranian is an accomplished veteran just two years removed from advancing to the Open semis.

But Fernandez dominated the first set. She won the opening game of the second and then the momentum shifted. The shouts and fist-bumps switched to the side of Svitolina, who won five straight games and eventually the second set.

Fernandez recovered and broke Svitolina in the fourth game of the third set, highlighted by a ping-pong back-and-forth at the net. Svitolina immediately broke back and the match careened toward the deciding tiebreaker.

Twice Fernandez failed to capitalize on an upper hand (she served for the match at 5-3 in the third set and squandered a 4-1 lead in the tiebreaker), and twice she averted collapse.

The Little Teenager that Could.

“I was glad I was able to push through the finish line,” she said.

***

It’s a low point for U.S. tennis.

For the first time in the Open’s very long history (it dates to the 19th century), the quarterfinals didn’t include at least one American man or woman.

And it wasn’t for a lack of participants. Americans had the most players in the field – for both genders – but none carried a ranking higher than 21 (Sloane Stephens). They all flamed out by the fourth round.

Men’s American tennis has lacked star power for years, with Andy Roddick capturing the nation’s last major title in 2003. George W. Bush was still serving his first term. This US Open was more disappointing for the women relative to expectations.

Welcome to tennis after the Williams sisters.

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