NEW YORK — Even in an era of unprecedented depth on the women’s tennis tour, where it seems like two dozen or so players come to Grand Slams thinking they have a legitimate chance to take the trophy, Leylah Fernandez should have had no reason to believe that she was among them.
After all, the 19-year-old Canadian was just at the beginning of her career with no real résumé to speak of against top-ranked players and no match experience on a stage as big as Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But as the U.S. Open has unfolded, the petite 5-foot-6 Fernandez hasn’t merely taken on the reputation of a giant killer. Her game, it turns out, is larger than life — it’s carried her within one win of the U.S. Open title.
“Thanks to the New York crowd. Thanks to you, I was able to win,” Fernandez said during an on-court interview.
Ranked outside the top 70 at the start of this tournament, Fernandez continued one of the most impressive runs to a Grand Slam final in recent memory, beating world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus on Thursday night 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 and will play for the championship on Saturday against either Greece’s Maria Sakkari or 18-year-old British qualifier Emma Raducanu.
Fernandez, who came to New York with just one career win over a top-10 player, now has a slew of them, having also beaten two-time champion Naomi Osaka and No. 5 Elina Svitolina as well as Angelique Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam winner. And they all came in three sets, showing Fernandez’s moxie and her ability to execute under pressure while her opponents fell apart.
“I just wanted to be in the finals. I fought for every point. I don’t know how I got that last point in, but I’m glad it was,” Fernandez said.
She celebrated in front of an Ashe crowd that included fellow Canadian and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, who coaches the Brooklyn Nets and sat in her player’s box.
Fernandez was up a break in the third set but immediately gave it right back. She managed to hold until 5-4, putting the pressure on Sabalenka’s serve.
She didn’t handle it well. After losing the first point, Sabalenka served up back-to-back double faults, giving Fernandez three match points. At that point, all Fernandez had to do was put the ball in play and Sabalenka gifted her a 52nd unforced error to end the match.
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken