18-year olds are making the news at this year’s US Open and Leylah Fernandez has joined them in the headlines by shocking defending champion Naomi Osaka in front of a packed crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday night in New York.
From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone, anyone who is in front of me. Even playing different sports, I was always that competitive, saying I'm going to win against them, I'm going to win against my dad in soccer, even though that's like impossible. I've always had that belief. I've always, like, tried to use that in every match that I go on. I guess today that belief came true. Leylah Fernandez
Fernandez engineered an inspired performance, coming from behind to seal a 5-7 7-6(2) 6-4 upset win over the 4-times Grand Slam champion.
The Canadian’s feat followed 18-year old Carlos Alcaraz from Spain’s stunning win over 3rd-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the men’s singles in the earlier night session match and the house was buzzing.
Osaka, too, was the No 3 seed, having dropped her ranking after her self-imposed break from the game because of mental health issues, and that this loss hurt was clear when the tearful Japanese told reporters afterwards that she is unsure when she will play her next match.
“I feel like for me recently when I win, I don’t feel happy,” Osaka said as she struggled to hold back tears. “I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”
When the US Open moderator offered to end the press conference, Osaka declined, saying: “I kind of want to finish this.
“This is very hard to articulate. Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.
“I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”
Fernandez ended Osaka’s 16-match winning streak in majors, which began last summer when she captured the US Open, her 3rd major title, and carried on that form into the Australian Open in February, where she also won the championship.
The former World No 1 struggled throughout much of the match and her frustration was visible as she hurled her racket onto the court and, at one point, threw it away, while later she was issued a warning for hitting a ball into the stands.
Fernandez, ranked 73, is a former junior champion at 2019 Roland Garros who made her Top 100 debut a year ago after the US Open and won her first WTA title earlier this season on the hard-courts of Monterrey.
An athletic left-hander who chose tennis over soccer, Fernandez beat Ana Konjuh and the ever-dangerous Kaia Kanepi in straight sets to set up her showdown with Osaka, who received a walkover into the 3rd round after Olga Danilovic withdrew ahead of their match on Wednesday.
Osaka started the match sharply and did not face a break point in the first set, reeling off the last 9 points of the opener to take it.
She continued to cruise through her service games in the second, but so did the young Canadian.
“I was very happy how I played in the first set,” Fernandez said later. “I was serving well. I was playing well.
“She just edged up near the end. In the break I was telling myself to stay positive, keep fighting. I’m there, I’m close.”
Osaka earned her only break of the second set at 5-5, but this time the 3rd seed could not close, misfiring misfired at 6-5, 0-40 to offer up the first break points of the match, and Fernandez converted on her 3rd with a good return that earned a forehand error to force the tiebreak.
“In the second set, I guess, on the very last game I found the solution to the problem of returning her serve,” Ferandez added. “I’m glad that I found it. I don’t think I won more than two points on the return up until that game.
“I was trying to find different looks. I started off really far from the line. Then I was just edging closer and closer. Finally, I found a pattern to her serve. I just trusted my gut and hit the ball.”
Rattled by the abrupt turn of events, Osaka played an error-filled breaker, slamming down her racket as she fell behind 5-0, and Fernandez closed it out with a 102 mph first serve wide that the defending champion could not control.
After losing the tiebreak, Osaka left the court for a bathroom break with her head draped in a towel.
Fernandez took her momentum into the decider and immediately broke for a 2-0 lead, but the Japanese recovered her range to put pressure on the Canadian’s deliveries.
The critical point came at 3-2, 30-all, when the teenager closed it out as Osaka pushed a big forehand just long of the baseline.
Having escaped with her lead intact and the crowd behind her, Fernandez coolly served out the win, holding to love to seal her stunning comeback.
Fernandez finished the match with 28 winners to 24 unforced errors, while Osaka fired 37 winners, including 15 aces, to 36 unforced errors.
Osaka was on course for a straight-sets victory when she apparently unravelled after a string of forehand errors cost her her serve and the ensuing breaker, which was all the diminutive, 5’ 6” patient left-hander needed to roar back and take the match.
“I’m not really sure why,” Osaka said later. “Normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I was kind of like a little kid.”
Fernandez was broken just once in the match, as her left-handed serve flummoxed Osaka’s return all night.
Osaka landed just 62% of her returns in the match, lower than Fernandez’s 66%, and won just one point off the Fernandez first serve in the final set.
“From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone, anyone who is in front of me,” Fernandez said. “Even playing different sports, I was always that competitive, saying I’m going to win against them, I’m going to win against my dad in soccer, even though that’s like impossible.
“I’ve always had that belief. I’ve always, like, tried to use that in every match that I go on. I guess today that belief came true.”
Fernandez, who turns 19 on Monday, will now face the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber for a place in the quarter-finals.
The German defeated American Sloane Stephens in a meeting of two former US Open champions, 5-7 6-2 6-3, in just under 2 hours, the 16th seed fighting back to win for only the second time in 7 career meetings.
It was Kerber who took more advantage of opportunities as the match lengthened, finishing up the clash with 4 breaks of service out of her 9 break points while Stephens, a former World No 3, could only muster a 2-for-5 rate on her own opportunities.
Stephens played the cleaner to take the first set, but by the end, it was Kerber who was pristine, mixing big hitting from her lefty forehand with devilish drop-shots to win the last 5 games of the second and grinding out the closely-contested decider for the win.
“Playing against Sloane, it’s always a tough battle,” Kerber told the press, after her win. “I lost the last few matches against her, so I was ready to have a really tough fight.
“After the first set where she played really well, especially in important moments, I was just trying to stay in the match, being ready for every single ball.
“The third set, I think at the end, two, three points decided the match. I was just focusing for every single ball and taking my chances, being ready, being aggressive. I’m happy that I’m through and being in the second week now.”
Elsewhere, No 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine charged into the round of 16 by ousting 25th-seeded Daria Kasatkina from Russia, 6-4 6-2, in an hour and 14 minutes on the Grandstand court, extending her current winning streak to 8 straight matches after winning her first title of the season last week in Chicago.
“I knew that I had to be really quick with my mind just to go straight into Grand Slam [after Chicago], try to bring the same intensity, same tennis,” Svitolina told the press. “I was playing quite good my first round, then second round, and today was even better I would say with my tennis. I’m happy where I am right now.”
The Ukrainian is now 6-0 over the Russian after saving all 3 break points she faced and keeping her unforced error count down to just 14 compared to 22 by Kasatkina.
Svitolina next meets Simona Halep, the 12th seed from Romania, who battled past 19th seed Elena Rybakina from Kazakstan, 7-6(11) 4-6 6-3 in an early 3rd-round thriller.
At 2 hours 24 minutes in length, and with wild momentum shifts, both came up with their best tennis when behind, until the former World No 1 pulled away in the home stretch.
She came from 0-3 and 3-5 down and saved 4 set points in the opener, finally converting her own 7th after an epic tiebreak and overturned a 0-3 double break deficit in the second to get within 5 points of victory at 5-4, before Rybakina forced a decider where Halep recovered from another early break to dominate the closing stages of the match.
Both broke serve 7 times, and Halep finished with just 3 points more than Rybakina, 106 to 103, but the powerful 21-year old Kazakh had superior offensive numbers, 34 winners to the Romanian’s 24, and 14 aces to just one.