Leylah Annie Fernandez did not win the U.S. Open, but she may have received one of the heartiest runner-up ovations the tournament has ever seen.
Canada’s 19-year-old new tennis hero lost Saturday’s final to Britain’s 18-year-old qualifier Emma Raducanu 6-4, 6-3, ending her magical run in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., with the runner’s-up plate rather than the trophy she so desired.
But her remarkable run at this event, with wins over one WTA Tour star after another, enchanted fans in New York. With tears flowing and crushing disappointment in her heart, Fernandez found the presence of mind to address them on the microphone in her post-match speech about the day, the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
“I know this day is especially hard for New York, and everywhere around the United States,” said the young Canadian. “And I just want to say that I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.”
She was hoping to become just the second Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title, following Bianca Andreescu’s U.S. Open victory in 2019. She didn’t do that, but she did earn a life-changing US$1.25-million as the runner-up – by far the biggest single prize of her young life and more than her total career earnings on court.
Her British opponent pocketed $2.5-million. From qualifying on, Raducanu, ranked No. 150, won an incredible 10 matches in 19 days to earn the title, without dropping a set. She was an unstoppable train and became the first qualifier – man or woman – ever to hoist a grand slam trophy.
Fernandez, born to a Filipino-Canadian mother and a father who emigrated from Ecuador, enticed Canadians to their television sets and grabbed at their heartstrings with her underdog run in New York. She contributed to what has been a truly special year for Canadian female athletes, from Penny Oleksiak to Maggie MacNeil, and the Canadian women’s soccer and hockey teams.
The lefty from Laval, Que., was the fourth Canadian Grand Slam finalist, following Milos Raonic, Genie Bouchard and Andreescu.
Montreal-born Fernandez, who arrived in New York ranked No. 73, had the tournament of a lifetime with upset wins, including Aryna Sabalenka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and four-time grand slam winner Naomi Osaka, the defending U.S. Open champ.
It was the first time a pair of teenagers met in a Grand Slam final since 17-year-old Serena Williams beat 18-year-old Martina Hingis at the 1999 U.S. Open. Back then, it was commonplace to see teens contending for major titles.
Never before in the Open Era had two unseeded players squared off for a major title. They made up the most unlikely final one could have predicted. There they were at 18 and barely 19, doing something so early that some pros never achieve in an entire career.
It was something completely fresh and new on the WTA Tour, new stars being born, maybe even the first glimpse of the hot new rivalry in women’s tennis. Both finalists were youthful and precocious, energetic and fast-moving, the Brit standing 5-foot-7, and the Canadian just 5-foot-6 tall.
Only one young woman could have the fairytale finish to her New York-Cinderella story on this day.
Saturday’s final in New York coincided with the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, the afternoon began with the unfurling of a United States flag that hugged the entirety of the court, and an emotional rendition of the American anthem, flanked by New York first responders and military personnel.
Fernandez was facing another Canadian-born woman. Raducanu was born in Toronto to a Romanian father and Chinese mother, and the family moved to Bromley, England, when she was two.
The Brit was playing in just her second Grand Slam, yet became the first-ever qualifier to make it all the way to a major final. The Brit may not have faced top 5 opponents like Fernandez did on her path, but it took her nine victories to advance to Saturday, and she didn’t drop a single set.
They had along, fiery first set - a true tug of war between hungry, strong-willed women. Raducanu broke Fernandez in her first service game, but it took six break points to do it. Fernandez broke right back, but grinded through three break points first.
The Canadian’s serve abandoned her for much of the biggest match of her career. She struggled to get it over the net. Plus, Raducanu was running her back and forth like no other opponent yet had in this U.S. Open. The Brit pulled ahead in the set. Fernandez reeled it back in, delivered some inspiring winners, got back on track and tied it right back up. It was Raducanu who won the intense, hourlong first set.
Steve Nash was back in the crowd to back the Canadian once again. The very idea of this former undersized NBA point guard had once served as an inspiration to her as a petite player. Her father and coach, Jorge Fernandez, cited him as an example. She has more than proved that she plays big and does not shrink.
It wasn’t the size of that Canadian frame that caused the loss in the U.S. Open final. Raducanu was simply better on the day. The Brit chased down everything that came across the net, pounded the ball, made the match so tough, and seemed unstoppable.
Fernandez refused to roll over and let the match go so easily. She scraped and clawed to stay in the match and pounced when Raducanu nervously made mistakes while trying to close out the victory. Fernandez finally began to smile for the first time of the day. Raducanu slid awkwardly across the baseline after a ball and blood trickled down her leg.
The fighting power of this young Canadian made you imagine for a moment that she could stage an improbable comeback. The medical timeout gave the Brit a chance to breathe and recover – a cruel stop to the Canadian’s sudden momentum and Fernandez pled to get to the match.
Raducanu came back on the court and stormed again, this time closing it out. It wasn’t to be for Fernandez.
This one will sting for Fernandez, but she still found a smile and a laugh for the crowd through the heartbreak.
“I hope to be right back here in the finals, this time with the trophy,” said Fernandez as the crowd roared. “The right trophy.”