Column: At U.S. Open, Leylah Fernandez follows father’s advice and fights for her dream
Leylah Fernandez’s father, Jorge, is also her coach. Before each match, they go over the tactics he thinks she should employ, but he also reminds her to have fun on the tennis court.
Jorge, a former professional soccer player and native of Ecuador, isn’t with his daughter in New York, but he was in her ear as she prepared Tuesday to slay another giant in the U.S. Open women’s field. Two bits of his advice resonated for her.
“Today is your first quarterfinal. Don’t make it your last,” she said he told her by phone. “Fight for your dream.”
Fernandez, who had upset defending U.S. Open champions Naomi Osaka and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in her previous two matches, kept her dream alive with a stunning quarterfinal performance against No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina. Telling herself to trust her game — she said she chooses a different motivational phrase as a mantra in each match — Fernandez had 25 forehand winners and 42 winners overall in a thrilling 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) victory that put her into her first Grand Slam semifinal.
At the end, after Svitolina returned a serve long, Fernandez sank to her knees on the court. The moment was as exhilarating as she dreamed it would be long ago when she was growing up in Montreal and adopted seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Justine Henin as her idol because they’re both of moderate height — 5 feet 6 — but are driven by big hearts.
“I’ve imagined myself playing on every tournament, every Grand Slam, at the biggest stage,” said Fernandez, who turned 19 on Monday. “When I was younger, since I used Justine Henin as a great example, I would imagine myself playing against her. I would also imagine myself playing against Serena and Venus [Williams], 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.”
A self-described early morning person, No. 17 Maria Sakkari defeats No. 6 seed Bianca Andreescu in a match that ended after 2 a.m.
The first set stayed on serve until Fernandez broke for a 4-2 lead and consolidated that by holding for 5-2. Svitolina held serve, but Fernandez won the set on her second try when a backhand by Svitolina went long.
Svitolina gained a break in the fourth game of the second set and another to go up 5-1. Fernandez gained a break for 5-2, but Svitolina served out the set and finished with an ace. “In the second set, she upped her level and I unfortunately made a few mistakes on key moments,” Fernandez said. “I’m glad I was able to recuperate for the third set. The tiebreaker too.”
Fernandez had a 5-2 lead in the third set before Svitolina bounced back to even it at 5-5. They each held serve, setting up the tiebreaker. Fernandez never trailed in the tiebreaker, though they were close throughout. “Today’s match was definitely one of the hardest, not only tennis-wise but also mentally and emotionally,” Fernandez said. “Svitolina is a great player, great fighter.”
Not every dream comes true, of course, tennis-related or otherwise. Qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp’s unlikely progress through the men’s field was halted by No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev, though 117th-ranked van de Zandschulp made the Russian work for a 6-3, 6-0, 4-6, 7-5 decision at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I have to say the first two sets went by quickly, I think. Maybe too quickly. In the third, I start serving better, playing better,” van de Zandschulp said. “I think I played a good third and fourth set. In the fourth, he served amazing. Yeah, I think at the end of the match he’s the guy who deserved to win today.”
Medvedev said he was feeling “easy” after winning the first two sets. “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,” Medvedev said.
“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.”
Medvedev reached the semifinals here for the third straight year: He was down two sets and a break to Rafael Nadal in 2019 and pushed Nadal to a fifth set before losing, and he lost in the 2020 semifinals to eventual champion Dominic Thiem. The experience should help him against 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz or 21-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, who were playing their quarterfinal Tuesday night.
“Both try to turn around with a forehand but have very, very good backhands where they try to also accelerate the ball. It’s not like you play on their backhand and you know, OK, it’s easy, you can have some time to breathe,” Medvedev said. “Both try to take the ball early on the return, also trying to pressure. ... Of course, I’m gonna talk about this later with my coach, but in general against these guys, yeah, should try to not give them all the time they want, otherwise they are gonna destroy you.”
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Fernandez on Thursday will face No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who defeated Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic 6-1, 6-4. Sabalenka has lost only one set here in reaching her second straight Grand Slam semifinal. She lost the Wimbledon semifinal to Karolina Pliskova.
“It’s like nothing to lose for her,” Sabalenka said of Fernandez. “It’s going to be an interesting match, and I’m looking forward to this one.”
So is everyone who has dared to dream a dream and see it through.
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