NEW YORK — Leylah Fernandez never doubted she could beat the best in the world.
But given she had never advanced past the third round at a major before arriving to the 2021 US Open, it was everyone else who needed convincing.
By the end of her third-round match against defending champion and former world No. 1 Naomi Osaka, the Canadian had made believers around the globe with her fearless play and never-quit attitude. She won the match in three hard-fought sets, but she was hardly fazed. On the court just moments later, she was asked when she realized she could win the match.
The No. 73-ranked player didn’t hesitate in her response.
“From the very beginning, right before the match, I knew I was able to win,” Fernandez said.
On Saturday, Fernandez, 19, will play for the US Open title, and she will take on another surprise finalist,18-year-old qualifier Emma Raducanu, who is ranked No. 150 and represents Great Britain. It’s the showdown no one predicted, but one that has already captivated the attention of even the most casual tennis fans due to the unflappable confidence and unwavering poise of the sport’s two suddenly brightest rising stars.
“They both have the self-belief and know they can win, and have always been told by their families they can win,” said Alexandra Stevenson, who reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 1999 as an 18-year-old qualifier. “Nothing is impossible, and you can tell they totally believe that. Gen Z is not just coming, but they’ve arrived, and they know they belong here.”
Fernandez has awed fans with her giant-slaying ability, knocking off some of the biggest names in tennis during her run in New York. Since defeating Osaka, she has faced three-time major champion Angelique Kerber, world No. 5 Elina Svitolina and world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. She needed a deciding set in each match, but found a way to win against her veteran opponents.
For Raducanu, it’s not as much whom she has beat, but how she has won that has turned heads. Playing in just her second main draw at a Grand Slam, she has stormed through the field, including her three qualifying matches, and has yet to drop a set. Shelby Rogers, who had upset top-ranked Ash Barty a match earlier, won just three games against the teenager in the fourth round. In the semifinals No. 17 seed Maria Sakkari was rendered nearly powerless and won one game in the opening set.
Despite the uncharted territory for both players in their young careers, there have been few signs of nerves or pressure. Sheriece Sadberry, a Florida-based sports psychologist who has worked with Olympic and NCAA athletes, is not surprised by their composure or confidence.
“At that age, and this is true for so many athletes I’ve worked with at the collegiate level, they have always been the best athlete among those they are competing against,” Sadberry said. “They are able to see their ability to compete at a high level and they just start to believe in it. And when they see they’re that good at a young age, they say, ‘OK, this can turn into something special.’ They haven’t had those moments yet where they’ve struggled or lost to someone they were expected to beat, and so that further fuels the belief.”
Fernandez and Raducanu are hardly the first teenagers to achieve such success on one of the sport’s biggest stages. Tennis was dominated by young players in previous eras — Martina Hingis (1997), Monica Seles (1990) and Tracy Austin (1979) all won major titles as 16-year-olds — but with the extended athletic careers seen today across sports and the sheer dominance of Serena Williams for more than two decades, it has been tougher for the youth to break through. Williams, who herself won her first Grand Slam as a 17-year-old at the 1999 US Open, became the oldest woman to win a major title at the 2017 Australian Open at 35.
But there have been glimpses of the future in recent years as Williams’ career nears its end. The latest generation of tennis superstars has started to emerge. Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek were 19 when they won the 2019 US Open and 2020 French Open titles, respectively, and Osaka (2018 US Open) and Sofia Kenin (2020 Australian Open) were both 20 for their maiden titles.
Still, those players had far more experience than Fernandez and Raducanu. Andreescu and Osaka had both won 1000-level events, Kenin had nabbed three WTA titles and even Swiatek, the least accomplished of the group before her major victory, had seven ITF singles trophies.
Fernandez is playing in her second year on the WTA tour, and in her first full season as the pandemic disrupted much of the 2020 schedule. She won her first title in March at the 250-level Monterrey Open and the US Open is just her seventh major main draw. And yet, that’s light-years ahead of Raducanu, who made her WTA debut at Nottingham in June. She has made the most of her limited time on tour, however, and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon as a wild card earlier this year.
“It’s incredible what these two are doing just without the résumé underneath them,” Rennae Stubbs, a four-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst, said. “What they’re doing is pretty impressive in the fact that they haven’t had a ton of big match play, but I think they’re both very, very focused independently on every point. They’re embracing the crowd, they’re embracing the moment, they’re not shying away from it.”
On Saturday, Fernandez and Raducanu will battle for the biggest title of their young lives and for the chance to live out a childhood dream. Raducanu admitted she wasn’t expecting to be in this position after her semifinal win over Sakkari on Thursday, but knew she had the ability.
“I personally think inside I knew I had some sort of level inside of me that was similar to these girls, but I didn’t know if I was able to maintain it over a set or over two sets,” Raducanu said. “To be able to do it and play the best players in the world and beat them, I honestly can’t believe it.”
The last time Fernandez and Raducanu played against one another was the second round of the 2018 junior tournament at Wimbledon. Raducanu won the match in straight sets, but everything has changed since then, and this time, each has a chance to etch her name into tennis immortality. Their opponents have talked about the luxury both have had as underdogs who can play freely and without expectations, but this match will undoubtedly be different. Neither has shown many signs of vulnerability thus far, but the stakes have never been so high.
Sadberry said they can’t allow themselves to think about any of that if they want to win.
“The No. 1 thing I emphasize with all athletes is to never call it the biggest match of your life,” Sadberry said. “It’s just a match. It’s a match like any other, and you just have to trust your muscle memory. Because when we call it the biggest match, we then add pressure to it. And once you add pressure, then you’re going to start to worry and you’re just going to start to lose out on what has made you good. Just focus on each point.”
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