While Emma Raducanu worked her way through the crowd to get congratulatory hugs from her team on Saturday evening, Leylah Fernandez sat in her white courtside seat and tried to fight back tears she couldn’t stop.
Her long black hair was out of its usual ponytail. Her eyes were red and watery. Fernandez was done. The incredible run she was on was over, but it didn’t have the fairy-tale ending the 19-year-old was looking for.
The ending was far from a fairy-tale, in fact. Fernandez fought to stay alive in the biggest match of her life, she fought to get momentum in the second set, working her way to a break point to keep her hopes alive, down a set and 3-5 in the second. But right after Fernandez earned that break point, blood poured down Raducanu’s left leg, and the Brit sought a medical timeout.
A little more than five minutes later, the match resumed, that hard-earned momentum Fernandez had worked for was zapped, and Raducanu made good on championship point No. 3, sealing a 6-4, 6-3 win at Arthur Ashe Stadium with an emphatic ace.
“I think this loss, I’m going to carry it for a very long time,” Fernandez said, nearly two hours after it was over, dry-eyed and wearing a maroon zip-up sweater. “I think it will motivate me to do better in training, better for the next opportunity I get. But I’m very happy with myself, with the way I competed, and the way I played, the way I acted on court the past two weeks.”
On the court after the biggest loss of her life, Fernandez was perfection with that microphone in front of her, smiling and covering her mouth with tears in her eyes as the crowd cheered for her. When they stopped so she could speak with former player Mary Joe Fernandez, she thanked her family. She thanked New York. The kid from Montreal said she wants to be back in the finals soon and win “the right” trophy, not the big shiny runner-up plate they gave her on Saturday.
But the best part came after the interviewer pulled back the microphone, and Fernandez asked to add one more thing, on Sept. 11.
“I know on this day it’s especially hard for New York and everyone around the United States,” she said, her voice shaking. “I just want to say I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.”
What an absolute star. A class act. A wonderful human being. This kid, the one who gave all the players cupcakes on her birthday earlier this week, hit all the right notes in her journey from relative unknown to household name, even when she was crushed by defeat.
The fight Fernandez showed in this match was incredible. It looked over well before it actually ended, but only if you forgot for a second that Fernandez has more heart than a bunch of lions. On her final service game, down 2-5, she saved two championship points. Her sister and mom stood in the stands, and her sister smiled and grabbed her face and told Fernandez to “smile!” Fernandez did smile. She pumped her fists some more. She was still alive.
That next game, she earned herself a break point to try and get this second set back on serve. The crowd went bananas. As Raducanu got medical attention for her bleeding leg, which started after she skidded across the court to reach a ball, Fernandez had an animated discussion with an on-court official about the ill-timed timeout.
“I honestly did not know what was happening with Emma,” Fernandez said, later. “I didn’t know how serious her fall was, so that’s why I went to see the official and asked her about it. You know what, it just happened in the heat of the moment. It was just too bad that it happened in that specific moment with me, with the momentum. But it’s sports, it’s tennis. Just got to move on.”
Emma Raducanu, of Britain, lies on the court after defeating Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, during the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Sept. 11, 2021. (Elise Amendola/AP)
The Toronto-born Raducanu dropped to the court and covered her face with her hands, when it was all over. Fernandez walked to Raducanu’s side of the court and hugged the teenager she wanted so badly to beat and then took her seat and tried to hold back those tears.
“It was definitely a tough match for both of us,” Fernandez said. “I unfortunately made one too many mistakes in key moments and she took advantage of it.”
Fernandez, the old lady on the court Saturday (she turned 19 earlier this week, and Raducanu won’t be 19 until November), hit fewer than 50 per cent of her first serves in the opening set, and 56 per cent in all. This was her undoing, and the difference in an incredibly close match. She had five double-faults.
But this match lived up to its billing and more.
What a treat and showcase it was, two unseeded teenagers on tennis’ grandest stage for the biggest match of their lives, a match absolutely nobody anywhere anticipated. Two confident young women with maturity beyond their years and otherworldly mental toughness. Two instant role models. Two Canadian-born underdogs — Raducanu got here out of qualifiers and was ranked 150th in the world, and Fernandez, 73rd in the world, beat three players inside the world’s Top 5 to get here.
They put on a show that featured literal blood and sweat and tears. They went for their shots, they chased down balls that looked unreachable, they slugged out lengthy rallies to make a two-setter last nearly as many hours.
Raducanu, who didn’t drop a single set at the US Open en route to becoming the first-ever qualifier to win a major, said she hopes to play Fernandez again, and in more finals. Fernandez grinned and nodded at the possibility. They aren’t alone in that wish. And take comfort in the fact that this is the first of many great performances we’ll see from Fernandez, if you ask those who know her well.
Cut out your “flash in the pan” worries, sports fans.
Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, left, and Emma Raducanu, of Britain, pose for photos after Raducanu defeated Fernandez in the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Former player Patricia Hy-Boulais is a close friend of the Fernandez family, and she’ll never forget the incredible work ethic she saw when she watched Fernandez practice for the first time, at age 15.
“I was training side-by-side with Jorge [Fernandez’s dad and coach] and Leylah, and I had an inkling that if she could stay with it and endure the hardship, as she has, she was going to go somewhere,” Hy-Boulais said. “Playing the right way, playing fearlessly, playing like you’re training. It’s that commitment, and she has it.”
National team veteran Sharon Fichman met Fernandez while playing doubles at a tournament in Quebec, and was struck by her maturity.
“She was 15 years old at the time but she really seemed like such an old soul, even at that age,” Fichman said. “She had a very calm demeanor, and she was so thoughtful whenever I asked her questions, she had mature responses. I felt like there was a lot more depth to her than your average 15-year-old.”
And if you saw Fernandez’s tears on the court, you know: “She wants it, bad,” as Hy-Boulais put it. “She holds herself to such a high standard,” Fichman added.
So, get used to seeing great things from Leylah Fernandez. She didn’t get her ending on Saturday, but she’ll use this experience as fuel.
“With these wins and this loss today, it definitely stings,” Fernandez said. “But it will just make me want to work harder and stronger, just come back to every tournament with the same hunger that I came into this tournament with.”