Who is Leylah Fernandez? Told at school she wouldn't make it at tennis and now one win from US Open glory

 Leylah Fernandez of Canada celebrates after her match against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus (not pictured) on day eleven of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament - USA TODAY
Leylah Fernandez of Canada celebrates after her match against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus (not pictured) on day eleven of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament - USA TODAY

For obvious reasons virtually all the focus has been on Emma Raducanu’s stunning march to the final, but the 18 year-old isn’t the only teenage star to shock in New York. Leylah Fernandez turned 19 during her run to Saturday’s showdown and, as with Raducanu, has stunned rivals, pundits and fans in the process.

Here’s the lowdown on the woman who stands between the Briton and US Open history.

Who is she?

Born in Montreal to an Ecuadorian father, Jorge, and a Filipino-Canadian mother, Irene, the family moved to Florida when she was 12 following her early success in the junior ranks of the game.

She has good sporting genes as her Dad played professional football and has since become a self-taught tennis coach and mentor to his daughter. Some coaches have raised eyebrows over some of his methods - apparently he had a reward and punishment coaching technique - but his aim has been to make her mentally tough.

“In the land of the blind the one-eyed-man is king. I had one eye, and I said, 'OK, since my kids and wife don’t know better, I’m not going to get criticised much'. I decided we’re going to focus a lot on fitness, mental toughness, and speed. A lot of precision tennis, and every now and again, a knockout punch,” he told Canadian broadcaster CBC.

Having won the junior French Open in 2019 Fernandez turned turned professional and has since quietly - until this US Open - gone about making a name for herself. Over the past 12 months she's reached the final of the Mexican Open, the third round of the French Open, won the Monterrey Open and competed for Canada in the Tokyo Olympics. That’s got her to a career high of 66 in the world rankings and she entered this tournament as the No 73 in the world.

Fernandez cannot believe she's made the US Open final after beating world No.2 Aryna Sabalenka - USA TODAY
Fernandez cannot believe she's made the US Open final after beating world No.2 Aryna Sabalenka - USA TODAY

Was she always destined to be a tennis player?

Considering the early focus on the sport and rapid rise, you’d think the answer was a big ‘yes’. But, as Fernandez revealed in her post-match interview after beating Aryna Sabelenka 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 in the semi-final, she was once advised to take up another passion.

A teacher told her she’d never make it, but, as a determined soul, Fernandez says she uses that daily motivation.

“A lot of people doubted me, my family and my dreams,” Fernandez said. “I remember one teacher, which was actually very funny - at the time it wasn't, but now I'm laughing. She told me to stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school. I'm glad she told me that because every day I have that phrase in my head saying, ‘I'm going to keep going, push through, prove to her everything I've dreamed of I'm going to achieve’.”

What has her run to the final been like?

Whisper it, but if anything it’s been more impressive, and no less surprising, than Raducanu’s.

On her way to the semi-final Fernandez saw off world No 3 and four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka, three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber and world No 5 Elina Svitolina. In the process she become the youngest player to beat two out of the top-five players in the world rankings since none other than Serena Williams achieved the feat back in 1999. That was before she then beat the world No 2 Aryna Sabelenka in Thursday’s last-four clash.

One thing that may give her an advantage over Raducanu is the fact that her passage to the Saturday showdown has included four three-setters compared to the Briton’s none. On the one hand Raducanu will be the fresher, but come a nail-biting deciding set those close-run battles could stand Fernandez in good stead.

Fernandez has proved to be more than a match for some of the biggest names in women's tennis over the past two weeks in New York - SHUTTERSTOCK
Fernandez has proved to be more than a match for some of the biggest names in women's tennis over the past two weeks in New York - SHUTTERSTOCK

There’s no doubt that Raducanu hasn’t been fazed by the surroundings and stature of the US Open, but the same can definitely be said of Fernandez - this will be a final between two fearless players.

Of her run to the final Fernandez said: “I think I've been doing some incredible things. I don't know. It's like I think one word that really stuck to me is ‘magical’ because not only is my run really good but also the way I'm playing right now.

“I'm just having fun, I'm trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy. I'm glad that whatever I'm doing on court, the fans are loving it and I'm loving it, too. We'll say it's magical.”

What sort of game does she play?

While Raducanu’s run has been based on her clean, aggressive hitting, Fernandez’s march to the final has been based on her energy, athleticism and never-say-die attitude - facets of the game that her father always emphasised. Her wins over Osaka and Co have showcased all those characteristics, allied to fine defence and a brilliant counterattacking game. She’s stays on the baseline and has reportedly added some power to her groundstrokes in New York.

Has she played Raducanu before?

While they have never met professionally they do know each other from their time in the junior ranks. Indeed, after her semi-final win, Raducanu recalled the first time they faced each other as 12 year-olds in Florida.

“I think it was maybe Orange Bowl, under-12s,” the Briton said. “It was definitely under-12s. We first encountered each other because I was born in Toronto and she was Canadian, so we kind of, like, made a little relationship back then. The fact that we are both here after having played each other from the early days, it’s very cool to see just how far we have come.”

While Raducanu didn’t reveal the result of that first encounter she was able to recall how Fernandez fared against her the last time they met. That match came in 2018 in the junior competition at Wimbledon. It was the second round and Raducanu won in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4.

They will now face off for the US Open title and the not insignificant winner’s cheque of £1.8 million - so far Fernandez’s career earnings amount to £269,436 and Raducanu’s £193,336.

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source https://sports.yahoo.com/leylah-fernandez-told-school-she-111535074.html?src=rss

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