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The Pure and Unexpected Joy of Leylah Fernandez

This year’s US Open was not supposed to be a particularly magical one. The bulk of the storylines leading into the tournament centered on a long list of venerated player withdrawals. Unbeatable Novak Djokovic was still on track to make history for the men’s side with a record 21st Grand Slam, but even that possibility felt dimmed by its context — which is that with his next victory, so goes too the era of Roger Federer, newly 40, and Rafael Nadal, who both withdrew from the tournament.

Serena Williams, who won her first Grand Slam at the 1999 US Open during her breakthrough season: withdrew. Venus Williams, who once won back-to-back US Open titles in 2000 and 2001: withdrew. For a generation of fans who grew up watching these players win for over two decades, it was all somehow a moody reminder that in the end, age and injury come for the greats. A few days before the tournament, a friend texted me what I was already thinking: “Well the US Open is gonna SUCK this year.”

Well, we were wrong. Our dour expectations were soon upended by a teenager.

When the unseeded 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez defeated Croatia’s Ana Konjuh in straight sets in their first round match, a few onlookers stopped to watch, but the bleacher seats were mostly empty, as they were during her second round win over Estonian player Kaia Kanepi. It was Fernandez’s third round match, her primetime win against defending champion Naomi Osaka, that got everyone Googling.

In the jubilant instant of victory, Fernandez threw her arms to the air as her face sang with joy, her grin as wide as the cheers were loud. She thanked Osaka and skipped back onto the court as gleeful shock blared from every corner of Arthur Ashe stadium. In that moment, all other preoccupations of the tournament felt irrelevant — all the bemoaning the end of eras, and debates over prolonged bathroom breaks, and last-minute vaccine requirements for fans, and the heartbreak over who wasn’t winning or wasn’t playing who should have been.

Suddenly the Open was about Fernandez’s story: a real life, real teenage dream come true for someone who isn’t white and isn’t rich. She was born in Montreal, Canada to an Ecuadorian former footballer father and a Filipino mother who moved to the U.S. early in Fernandez’s tennis career to help financially support her ambitions. Fernandez’s dad doubles as her head coach, and though he’s now flown into New York from Florida, where the family usually resides, he is too superstitious to attend her final match in person.

Fernandez was the youngest player in the main draw this year, but it wasn’t her first Grand Slam rodeo, either. She debuted at the 2020 Australian Open and lost quietly in the first round. She competed again at the French and US Opens, losing early in both, and has played all four Grand Slam majors this year. Until her sensational upset over Osaka, it’s a fair assumption that only the most devout tennis insiders would have been tracking her moves. Fernandez’s mere presence on court felt like an embodiment of the paths blazed by players like the Williams sisters — decades of pain, and effort — were paths won. That it could now feel thoroughly modern, and possible, for a mixed-race, trilingual teenager from a non-affluent background to compete, and to win, at the highest level. Leylah Fernandez belongs to the once-imagined future, and her appearance captures something profound, and full, about the gloriousness of rooting for youth.


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