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Column: Teenagers Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu to meet in U.S. Open final

Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, reacts after defeating Aryna Sabalenka,of Belarus.
Leylah Fernandez celebrates after defeating Aryna Sabalenka in the U.S. Open women’s semifinals Thursday.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

A pair of teenagers will play for the U.S. Open women’s title Saturday, and while that isn’t a matchup anyone expected when the tournament began, it’s the matchup we — and they — deserve.

The poise and ice-water-in-their-veins shotmaking displayed by unseeded 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez of Canada and 18-year-old qualifier Emma Raducanu of Britain have made them worthy finalists and vaulted them to the forefront of tennis’ next generation.

Fernandez shrieked and fell to her knees on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday when she continued her success with a 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 victory over No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. It was an upset according to their ranking but not according to the way Fernandez has played in reaching her first Grand Slam singles final. In her last four matches, she has knocked off defending champion Naomi Osaka, 2016 U.S. Open winner Angelique Kerber, No. 5 Elina Svitolina and Sabalenka, each in three sets, never rattled once.

“My dad would tell me all the time there’s no limit to my potential to what I can do. Every day we just got to keep working hard, we got to keep going for it,” Fernandez said. “Nothing’s impossible. There’s no limit to what I can do. I’m just glad that right now everything’s going well.”

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There’s an understatement.

Asked to describe what she has achieved so far, she settled on the word “magical.” It fits.

“I think I’ve been doing some things incredible,” she said. “Not only is my run really good but also the way I’m playing right now.”

Raducanu, who was born in Canada but moved to England with her family as a child, extended her streak of not having lost a set here with a 6-1, 6-4 rout of Maria Sakkari. She had a flight home booked for after the end of the qualifying tournament, not anticipating she would rampage through a field that lacked 23-time Slam singles champion Serena Williams but hasn’t lacked drama.

But there Raducanu stood Thursday, calming earning breaks in Sakkari’s first two service games in the first set and another break for 2-1 in the second set. She became the first qualifier, male or female, to reach the final of one of tennis’ major tournaments.

Emma Raducanu reacts after scoring a point against Maria Sakkari during the U.S. Open women's semifinals on Thursday.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

She had a response to everything Sakkari threw at her and answers during an often awkward post-match, on-court interview. Asked how she will manage the expectations she will face in the final, she played coy. “Is there any expectation?” Raducanu said. “I’m a qualifier, so technically, there’s no pressure on me.”

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But there is, and it’s a good pressure. A plaque posted along the path that players take from the locker room to the court reminds them of a favorite saying of tennis great Billie Jean King: Pressure is a privilege. Fernandez and Raducanu seem to understand and thrive on it.

After her biggest triumph so far, Fernandez recalled the pitfalls she had to overcome to get here and how her belief in herself was tested when she was in fifth or sixth grade.

“A lot of people doubted me, my family and my dreams. They kept saying no, that I’m not going to be a professional tennis player, that I should stop and just pursue going to school,” Fernandez said. “I remember one teacher, which was actually very funny — at the time wasn’t, but now I’m laughing. She told me to stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school.

Leylah Fernandez returns a shot to Aryna Sabalenka during the U.S. Open semifinals on Thursday.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)
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“You know what, I’m just glad that she told me that because every day I have that phrase in my head saying that I’m going to keep going, I’m going to push through, and I’m going to prove to her everything that I’ve dreamed of I’m going to achieve them.”

She also remembered that her mother, Irene, had to leave the family behind to take a job in California that would pay the ever-mounting costs of Leylah’s tennis.
“That few years had been definitely hard for me because I needed a mom, I needed someone to be there for me through the age of 10 to 13. I’ve barely seen her at that time,” Fernandez said. “Every time I saw her, it was like seeing a stranger but at the same time someone so familiar.”

Irene was in the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday as the world continued to fall in love with her poised, talented daughter. Leylah fought back from 0-3 in the first set against Sabalenka and saved a set point in the 12th game before she came back from 0-2 in the tiebreak. Sabalenka sabotaged her cause with a 18 unforced errors in the set.

Leylah Fernandez listened to her coach — her father, Jorge — and kept her dream alive with an upset of Elina Svitolina in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

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Sabalenka fought back in the second set and they exchanged breaks in the third before Fernandez capitalized on Sabalenka’s inconsistent serving and won on her first match point, after Sabalenka hit a forehand long.

“Seems like in these two weeks, everything working well for her. Like this is nothing to lose,” Sabalenka said of Fernandez. “Now there is no pressure on her at all. Crowd are here for her. You kind of feeling this crush and you’re using it, hitting the ball, don’t really thinking, everything is going in. This is nice kind of feeling. I felt it before. This is cool. But the question is when you will start to understand what’s going on and where you are, how good can you deal with all these expectations and all this level, all this pressure.”

So far, pressure has been a friend to Fernandez and Raducanu and it’s a privilege to watch them.


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