The breakthrough run by 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez has extended all the way into her first Grand Slam final at the 2021 US Open.
Fernandez, ranked World No.73, notched her third Top 5 win of the fortnight by battling past No.2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4, on Thursday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Fernandez had to save a set point in the first set before taking it in the tiebreak.
The Canadian teen continued her giant-killing run with the 2-hour and 20-minute victory over the World No.2, and has now beaten four seeds in a row to make it into her maiden major final.
Fernandez, who turned 19 on Monday, is now the second Canadian teenager in the last three years to make it into the US Open final, joining 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu, who was also 19 when she hoisted the trophy.
Words from the winner: "It was definitely a very good match from both of us," Fernandez said in her post-match press conference. "She started incredibly well in the beginning, but I'm just glad I was able to stay patient, fight for every point. I was glad in the tiebreaker I was able to be offensive but not overly playing and go for my shots.
"The second set I had my chances, but I did a few mistakes. She jumped on the opportunity to get the set. In the third, it was just a good battle. We went till the end. I was glad I was able to put that one more ball back in.
"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.
"I believed in my game, but it also has helped me open my eyes that I have no limit to my potential, that I can go three sets against these players, I can play against these top players, and I can win against these top players. I'm just glad to have this experience and see where my tennis game is at, my tennis level is at.
"I'm extremely proud of the way I fought for every point. My mental toughness, that's been a huge plus for me. I'm just extremely happy with what I've achieved this week. Off court I'm just enjoying every minute of it."
Stat corner: Fernandez came into the US Open with middling results of late: her tight victories over former Top 20 players Ana Konjuh and Kaia Kanepi in the opening two rounds in New York were her first back-to-back wins since she claimed her first WTA singles title in Monterrey in March.
But she rounded into form at this event with Top 5 victories over World No.3 and defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round and World No.5 Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals. She also had a fourth-round win against No.16 seed, former World No.1, and former US Open champion Angelique Kerber.
By adding World No.2 Sabalenka to her list of vanquished opponents, Fernandez becomes the youngest player to beat three Top 5 players at a Grand Slam event since Serena Williams accomplished that feat during her title run at the 1999 US Open.
Against Sabalenka, Fernandez was sturdy in the face of perilous moments, saving seven of the 11 break points she faced to limit her amount of dropped service games to four -- matching Sabalenka's total.
The power-hitting game of Sabalenka naturally caused her to lead in winners by 45 to 26, but the relentless speed and precision of Fernandez extended rallies past their breaking point, and Sabalenka finished the day with 52 unforced errors. By contrast, Fernandez had fewer unforced errors than winners, with 23.
Key moments: It was Sabalenka who dominated early proceedings, using strong serves and forehands to win 12 of the first 14 points and lead 3-0. But Fernandez used deep returns to get a look in on the Sabalenka service, which had been nearly flawless this event, at 4-2. Sabalenka fired a double fault on the third break point of that game to drop serve.
Fernandez withstood a set point at 6-5 to exhibit her mettle, and a tiebreak would decide the first set. Fernandez had been 4-0 in tiebreaks this fortnight, so it was no surprise when she gritted out this one as well. A deft defensive lob gave Fernandez a 5-3 lead, and after another ill-timed Sabalenka double fault, she served out the breaker.
Sabalenka was stingier with miscues in the second set and began to dominate with her forehand again as they pulled to 4-4 in that frame. There, the Belarusian drew errors from Fernandez to break serve, and Sabalenka suddenly appeared in control, sweeping to a love hold to level the match, ending the set with a successful serve-and-volley.
But Fernandez had pulled through her three previous upsets of seeds in lengthy three-setters, and that made her confident enough to fire more penetrating, pinpoint returns in the final set. That depth and accuracy on return allowed her to get the first break of the decider and lead 4-2.
Sabalenka was not done yet, breaking back for 4-3 on her fourth break point of that game, with a forehand return winner of her own. But Fernandez did not blink, hitting lines with aplomb as she held on for 5-4. There, Sabalenka faltered with two double faults to give Fernandez triple match point. The teen needed just one after a Sabalenka forehand flew long, and Fernandez collapsed to the court with joy.
All-teen showdown for a major title: Fernandez will now meet a fellow unseeded teenager in the final: qualifier Emma Raducanu of Great Britain. Raducanu ousted No.17 seed Maria Sakkari in the late semifinal.