Leylah Fernandez heads to US Open final

19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, who is Filipina-Ecuadorian Canadian, beat No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 to earn the first finals berth on Thursday, September 9. She faces fellow teen player Emma Raducanu of Great Britain. | AJPress photo by Troi Santos

IT’S going to be a battle of the teens at the U.S. Open Finals this weekend in New York as Leylah Fernandez of Canada and Emma Raducanu of Great Britain won their respective semifinal matches on Thursday, Sept. 9.

The last time two teens duked it out for the championship was in 1999 between Martina Hingis and Serena Williams.

“I think I’ve been doing some things incredible. I don’t know. It’s like I think one word that really stuck to me is ‘magical’ because not only is my run really good but also the way I’m playing right now,” Fernandez, playing in her seventh major tournament, said in her post-match interview.

Fernandez who turned 19 on Monday, Sept. 6 beat No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 to earn the first finals berth. She is the fourth Canadian male or female to make a major final joining Eugenie Bouchard (2014 Wimbledon), Milos Raonic (2016 Wimbledon), and Bianca Andreescu, who won the 2019 U.S. Open.

Born to an Ecuadorian immigrant and a Toronto-born Filipina, Fernandez began making her mark last week at the U.S. Open after she won over former champions and top-ranked players.

A day before she turned 19, Fernandez’s fairy tale journey progressed as she advanced to the quarterfinals after defeating 16th seed Angelique Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam winner who last won the tournament in 2016.

Before her match against Kerber, Fernandez stunned third seed and four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka in the third round. She beat fifth seed Elina Svitolina, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6, in a three-set tiebreak to book her first Grand Slam semifinals appearance.

Fernandez became the first woman since 18-year-old Serena Williams to beat two top-5 players at the U.S. Open in 1999. Her win against the second seed Sabalenka brought the number to three and was her fourth consecutive three-set victory over a seeded opponent.

During the post-match interview on-court, Fernandez said she was thankful to the New York crowd for supporting and cheering in the tournament so far.

“I honestly have no idea what I’m feeling right now,” she told Rennae Stubbs on the court after the victory. “I was so nervous and I was trying to do what my coach told me to do and thanks to you guys, to the crowd, to the New York crowd, I was able to push through today.”

Fernandez’s mom Irene and sisters Jodeci and Bianca cheered her on along with some friends and relatives. Her coach and dad watched the match from home.

NBA legend and Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash sat alongside her family in her player box. Fernandez said Nash inspired her and thanked him for his support.

“I remember when I was younger, my dad used him as an example and told me I had to work hard like Steve Nash. Hopefully, we can have a tennis match soon,” she said.

At the post-match press conference, Fernandez also thanked Filipino fans for their support. She also promised to learn more about her mother’s family’s culture.

“Unfortunately I do not know much about the Filipino culture, but I do know that my lolo, he cooks amazing,” she shared. “Hopefully when I get back to Canada and Toronto and visit him, he’s going to make a really nice dish for our whole family, a special Filipino dish, because I do miss it. You know what, I just can’t wait to learn more about the culture in the future.”

Family sacrifices 

Leylah with her dad Jorge, mom Irene and sisters Jodeci and Bianca.
Photo from Instagram/@leylahannietennis

In her press conference after the match, Fernandez revealed the sacrifices their family made for her to chase her dream of becoming a tennis player.

She recalled the days when “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. I remember one teacher, which was actually very funny — at the time wasn’t, but now I’m laughing,” she shared. “She told me to stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school. 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.”

At a young age, Fernandez witnessed how everyone in their family made sacrifices for her to be where she is right now.

She talked about how her mom had to go to California for a few years to support the family and her daughter’s budding tennis career.

“That few years 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. Every time I saw her, it was like seeing a stranger but at the same time someone so familiar,” she said.

Fernandez used that to focus on her game and hone her mindset, telling herself that she’s going to do everything in her power to achieve her dreams, to be closer to her dreams so that they can be together again as a family.

“We’re an immigrant family and we had nothing. Canada opened up its doors and, if they wouldn’t have done what they did, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have and I wouldn’t have been able to give them to my daughter,” Jorge told Canadian network TSN in an interview.

Tough opponent

On the other side of the court this Saturday is Emma Raducanu who delivered another brilliant performance to reach her first grand slam final, beating the 17th seed Maria Sakkari, 6-1, 6-4.

Raducanu, who has not lost a set, is now the first qualifier to reach a grand slam final in the Open era and the first British woman to reach a grand slam final since 1977. She beat Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic of Switzerland in the quarterfinals.

Both Fernandez and Raducanu are the 11th and 12th unseeded women to make the semifinals at Flushing Meadows since 2009 and the youngest U.S. Open semifinalists since Maria Sharapova in 2005.

Fernandez arrived at the U.S. Open ranked 73rd while Raducanu was ranked 150th.

Raducanu was born in Toronto; her dad is Romanian and her mom is Chinese. The family moved to Bromley, south of London when she was two years old. She began playing tennis when she was five.

“Is there any expectation? I’m a qualifier so technically, on paper, there’s nothing. No pressure on me,” said Raducanu on court after her victory.

The two teens met in the second round of the 2018 Wimbledon girls’ singles and after three years, their wildly different paths converge once more after both made remarkable runs.

On Saturday, one of them will lift the championship trophy in the world’s biggest tennis stadium and pocket the $2.5 million cash prize along with a slice of history. n

Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at momar.visaya@asianjournalinc.com.

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