After hitting a forehand winner to earn a break in the decisive third set, Leylah Annie Fernandez raised her right fist to the raucous Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd and then lifted her hands above her head to encourage even more noise.
The crowd obliged with a sonic boom of cheers.
Fernandez, who turned 19 years old on Monday, is celebrating her birthday week in style.
After never having gone past the third round of a Grand Slam tournament, the Montreal native who trains in Boynton Beach, Fla., is now through to the U.S. Open semifinals after a stunning 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) victory over No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina on Tuesday. She had earned about $374,000 in 2021 entering the U.S. Open and will now take home $675,000 for making the semifinals and stands to make as much as $2.5 million if she goes on to win the title.
“I honestly have no idea what I’m feeling right now,” she told Rennae Stubbs on court after the victory. “I was so nervous and I was trying to do what my coach [her father Jorge Fernandez] told me to do and thanks to you guys, to the crowd, to the New York crowd, I was able to push through today.”
The charismatic, confident left-hander has now beaten four-time major champion Naomi Osaka, three-time major champion Angelique Kerber and world No. 5 Svitolina in succession — coming from a set and a break down in the victories over Osaka and Kerber. She is the first woman since an 18-year-old Serena Williams in 1999 to beat two top-5 players at the Open. Serena toppled Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles en route to the crown in 1999.
Serena is not here this year due to a torn hamstring but a procession of teenagers — led by Fernandez, 18-year Brit Emma Raducanu and 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz of Spain — is giving the New York fans plenty to cheer about.
Raducanu will play her quarterfinal Wednesday against Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic, while Alcaraz, dubbed the heir apparent to Rafael Nadal, was set to play Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime later Tuesday night. If Auger-Aliassime wins, Canada would have two players in the semifinals after Canadian Denis Shapovalov reached the Wimbledon semifinals.
“I would say it’s the maple syrup,” she cracked when asked why the Canadians are doing so well.
With Serena and Venus Williams, Nadal (foot) and Roger Federer (knee) all sidelined this year due to injuries, these youngsters are winning fans and making headlines in one of the most exciting Opens in recent memory.
“What this tournament was going to struggle with was sort of the buzz factor, the it factor, the entertainment value,” Patrick McEnroe said on ESPN. “The tennis was going to be at a high level no matter what, but the players, particularly those younger players, with the help of these fans, have taken it to a whole other level. They’ve really embraced it.
“It’s been awesome to watch them stepping up to the plate on the big stage, delivering great tennis and great entertainment and great sportsmanship as well. It’s been an amazing week for tennis.”
Serving for the match at 5-3, Fernandez faced a break point and Svitolina took advantage with a deep approach shot and then an overhead smash to close to within 4-5.
In the tiebreak, Fernandez earned a mini-break at 2-1 with a forehand return winner.
At 5-all in the breaker, Fernandez hit a running forehand passing shot that clipped the net and landed in, giving her a match point.
On match point, Svitolina hit the return long and Fernandez bent down to the ground on the baseline before Svitolina came across to embrace her.
Fernandez’s coach and father, Jorge Fernandez, did not travel from Florida to New York reportedly because he’s superstitious.
“(I feel) just sheer happiness father,” he told CBS12 in Florida. “Not too many people can live out their dreams and she’s living them out as we speak, and she’s actually extremely aware that these are the beginning steps of eventually a very fruitful career if she keeps this up.”
Said Leylah after her latest win: “My dad told me so many things but today he told me to go out there, have fun, fight for every point. Today’s your first quarterfinals, don’t make it your last.”
While virtually no one thought Fernandez could make a run to the semifinals, apparently she did.
Asked after her victory over defending champion Osaka when she knew she could win the match, she said: “From the very beginning, right before the match, I knew I was able to win.”
Serena Williams may not be here but Fernandez is doing things not seen since Serena burst onto the scene more than two decades ago.
Now the 19-year-old is one match win from a Grand Slam final.
And who would bet against her?