Leylah Fernandez, the Canadian teen sensation, cruised into the finals of the U.S. Open Thursday night, knocking off Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus with an upset that might have been surprising had she not been doing this for the better part of a week.
With Steve Nash, the N.B.A. Hall of Famer and Nets coach watching from her box, and all of Canada and seemingly all of New York in her corner, Fernandez, ranked 73rd, notched her fourth consecutive win over one of the world’s top-20 players. Her stunning run has included victories over the second, third, fifth and 16th seeded players in the tournament. She beat Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, the winners of a combined seven Grand Slam singles titles, then knocked off Elina Svitolina, who is considered one of the best players never to have won a Grand Slam tournament.
Then came Sabalenka, one of the world’s biggest hitters and its second-ranked player. At 23, she appeared poised this year to take the next step in her development. She has never made a Grand Slam final but lost in the semifinals at Wimbledon and backed that up with another trip to the final four at the U.S. Open.
In Fernandez, though, Sabalenka ran into a player who seems to have convinced herself that she cannot be beaten, that if she can just keep getting the ball back over the net with her brand of power and spin and guile, somehow the match will break her way.
It took two hours and 21 minutes for that moment to come, when she finished off a 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 win, thanks to two ill-timed double faults from Sabalenka and one last error sailing off the court.
“I don’t know how I did that,” Fernandez said, when asked how she had pulled it all off during her on-court interview moments after the final point made the crowd explode one last time.
Fernandez became the second Canadian teenager in three years to make the final of the U.S. Open, following in the footsteps of Bianca Andreescu, who beat Serena Williams to win the championship in 2019.
Like Andreescu, Fernandez has shot to the top seemingly out of nowhere. Though she had been inching her way up the rankings for the past three years, she had given little indication that she was on the verge of a breakthrough of this magnitude.
Fernandez came out jittery, lost her serve and was down 3-0 in the first set. Before long though, she had settled down and proved to be the perfect foil for Sabalenka’s high-octane game that leaves little margin for error. When Sabalenka doesn’t connect, she beats balls into the bottom half of the net or watches them sail five and six feet beyond the baseline, then flails her arms in frustration.
Aug. 31, 2021, 10:07 p.m. ET
There was plenty of that on Thursday evening at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Sabalenka seemed to be making steady progress with a 4-2 lead in the first set, but then made a series of errors to let Fernandez back into the set, including a double fault on game point.
At the crucial moment of the first-set tiebreaker, with Fernandez holding a 4-3 lead, Sabalenka missed badly on an easy overhead, double-faulted, then bounced a Fernandez serve on set point into the net.
The second set looked like it was going to be a near carbon copy of the first. An early break for Sabalenka, then sloppiness to let Fernandez back into the frame. But then Fernandez cracked in the ninth game, giving Sabalenka a chance to serve out the set. She whirled her arms, begging for some support from the pro-Fernandez crowd.
On to the third set they went, trading service games into midway point, when Fernandez, holding a 3-2 lead, let Sabalenka hit herself into trouble, then blocked one of Sabalenka’s hardest serves of the night and watched Sabalenka’s shot float long. But Fernandez struggled with the prosperity, letting Sabalenka break her right back, and a game later knot the score at 4-4.
But Fernandez stayed cool, and a game later let Sabalenka take care of business for her. Eventually, things work out for this teenager, at least at this U.S. Open.
She will play the winner of the match between Emma Raducanu of Britain and Maria Sakkari of Greece in the final Saturday afternoon.