MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 10 September) – I was a fan of Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka – until Leylah Fernandez of Canada beat the four-time Grand Slam champion and two other top-ranked players in this year’s US Open.
Fernandez, 73rd-ranked, stunned third seeded Osaka in the second round 5-7, 7-6 (7/2), 6-4. She went on to upset World No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5) in the quarterfinals. And, in a matchup that can be considered the greatest shocker in the tournament, the 19-year old sent second seeded Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus to the exits 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 in the semifinal round.
Experience was clearly on Sabalenka’s side. But after humbling her two previous opponents the left-handed Fernandez has apparently stored a lot of confidence. She refused to be intimated even after Sabalenka had zoomed to a 3-0 lead in the first set. Besides, her fairy tale run has made her the darling of the crowd at Flushing Meadows.
In hindsight, I’d say the Fernandez-Sabalenka match was more of a mental battle than a clash of skills. The veteran was overthinking, apparently pressured by the scenario of losing to a diminutive teen with a big heart after giving up the first set, and failing the expectations she had set for herself.
So frustrated was Sabalenka with her performance that during a break in the early part of the second set she smashed her racket on the floor until it broke.
Fernandez, in contrast, simply enjoyed the game, playing with neither fear nor pressure. The calm demeanor further revealed itself in the post-match interview at the venue when, asked what her secret was, she gaily replied, “maple syrup,” alluding to the symbol on her country’s flag.
Asked by ESPN about her “magical run” to the final, she said: “Magical, that’s a great word. I tried to be magic on court from a very young age … putting a show on for everyone.”
To complete the magic in New York, another teen, 18-year old Emma Raducanu of Britain ousted World No. 17 Maria Sakkari of Greece 6-1, 6-4 to arrange a championship match with Fernandez.
Will it be Fernandez or the 150th-ranked Raducano? Both are young, hungry and brilliant. But my fearless forecast is Fernandez in three sets.
(Body and Sole is H. Marcos C. Mordeno’s fitness and sports column. He can be reached at [email protected])