Leylah Fernandez stuns No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka to reach U.S. Open final

By Helene Elliott

NEW YORK — Leylah Fernandez of Canada shrieked and fell to her knees on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium. She had just continued her magical run through the U.S. Open, advancing to the women’s final by upsetting No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4, and for a moment she was merely a happy teenager and not a professional tennis player on the brink of something unimaginably great.

Fernandez, who turned 19 on Monday, insisted during an on-court interview that she had no idea how she won her first Grand Slam semifinal. She was too modest. Her poise, ability to adjust to opponents’ tactics and her sheer will helped propel her past Sabalenka, who committed 52 unforced errors to 23 by Fernandez.

“I just wanted to be in the finals,” said the Montreal-born lefthander, who beat No. 5 Elina Svitolina, No. 16 (and 2016 U.S. Open champion) Angelique Kerber, and defending U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka in the previous three rounds. “I really wanted it. I fought for it.”

Fernandez, who is ranked 73 in the world but will move up dramatically in the next rankings, fell behind 0-3 and 1-4 in the first set and looked to be struggling with Sabalenka’s raw power. But as Fernandez has done before, she figured things out, regrouped and forged onward — and she won the set in a tiebreak.

Fernandez broke Sabalenka’s serve in the seventh game to cut Sabalenka’s lead to 4-3 and then held for 4-4. Fernandez saved a set point in the 12th game, serving at 5-6, winning the game when Sabalenka overhit a return. Sabalenka won the first two points of the tiebreak but her game became erratic. A double fault by Sabalenka gave Fernandez a 6-3 lead and Fernandez won the tiebreak and the set when Sabalenka netted a backhand.

Sabalenka committed a whopping 18 unforced errors in the first set, to six by Fernandez.

Sabalenka opened the second set by breaking Fernandez’s serve and consolidated the break by holding for 2-0. But Fernandez came back again, holding for 2-1, breaking Sabalenka’s serve for 2-2 and saving a break point against her in the next game to take a 3-2 lead. The crowd loved it, getting behind the young underdog and at one stage rhythmically chanting, “Let’s go Leylah!”

But Sabalenka wasn’t finished. She earned a break for 5-4 when Fernandez hit a backhand long and then served for the set, holding at love and finishing it off with a forehand volley to win the set 6-4. Sabalenka had 15 winners in the set, to five for Fernandez.

They continued to push each other in the third set, staying on serve for the first five games. Aided by Sabalenka’s sixth double fault, Fernandez got the advantage and the break on two backhands by Sabalenka that went long, taking a 4-2 lead. But Sabalenka broke back, converting her fourth break point, and then held for 4-4.

Sabalenka sabotaged her own cause with two double faults as she served at 4-5. When she hit a forehand long, Fernandez dropped to the ground and shrieked for joy.

In Saturday’s final Fernandez will face the winner of Thursday’s second semifinal, between unseeded 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Great Britain and No. 17 Maria Sakkari of Greece.

The men’s semifinals will take place on Friday. No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada will face No. 2 Daniil[cq] Medvedev of Russia in a match that will start after the men’s doubles final but not before noon Pacific time. In the night session, which will start shortly after 4 p.m. Pacific time, No. 1 Novak Djokovic will continue his pursuit of a calendar Grand Slam and a men’s-record 21st Grand Slam singles title when he faces No. 4 Alexander Zverev of Germany.

In their most recent meeting, Zverev rallied from a set down in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics to upset Djokovic and deny him a chance at a Golden Slam (an Olympic gold medal plus singles titles in each of the four Grand Slam events).

Also on Friday, Desirae Krawczyk of Palm Desert will compete in the women’s doubles semifinals and, later, in the mixed doubles semifinals.

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