New York: Canadian teen sensation Leylah Fernandez advanced to her first Grand Slam final on Thursday by defeating world number two Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in the US Open semi-finals.
The 19-year-old prodigy eliminated Wimbledon semi-finalist Sabalenka 7-6 (7/3), 4-6, 6-4 and could capture her first Slam crown on Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I don’t know how I got that last point in but I’m glad it was and I’m glad I’m in the finals,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez will play for the title against the winner of a later semi-final between Greek 17th seed Maria Sakkari and 18-year-old British qualifier Emma Raducanu.
Fernandez, a 73rd-ranked left-hander, made Sabalenka her third top-five victim of the Open, having earlier ousted defending champion Naomi Osaka and fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina.
Not since Serena Williams in 2012 at Wimbledon had a player beaten three rivals ranked in the top five at a Grand Slam.
If Fernandez meets 150th-ranked Raducanu in the final, it would be the first Slam final between teens since 17-year-old Williams beat 18-year-old Martina Hingis at the 1999 US Open - and only the eighth all-teen Slam final in the Open era (since 1968).
“I don’t care. I just want to play a final,” Fernandez said. “I’m going to enjoy my victory and worry about it tomorrow.”
Fernandez, who turned 19 on Monday, never went deeper than the third round in six prior Slam starts.
Sabalenka broke in the second game of the match on a forehand volley winner and dominated early with power shots, but Fernandez found her form and broke back to 4-3 on a Sabalenka double fault and they held into a tie-breaker.
Fernandez’s father-coach Jorge preached mental toughness in her training and it showed in the tie-break.
Sabalenka, 23, netted a forehand with a wide-open court to hand Fernandez a 3-2 edge. The teen never trailed after that, winning the last four points to claim the first set in 53 minutes.
“That’s years and years of work and tears and blood and sacrifice,” said Fernandez of her mental toughness.
Fernandez blasted a service winner to lead 4-3, saw Sabalenka mis-hit an overhead smash wide and double fault, then fired another service winner for the set, prompting the Ashe stadium music director to play the Eric Clapton song “Layla” as the crowd roared.
“I have no idea (how I won),” said Fernandez. “I’d say it’s thanks to the New York crowd. They helped me. They cheered for me. They never gave up.”
Sabalenka broke to open the second set but Fernandez broke back to 2-2 with a backhand slice winner.
Fernandez, however, sent a forehand long to surrender a break in the ninth game and Sabalenka held at love to force a third set.
After an exchange of breaks in the sixth and seventh games, Fernandez held to 5-4 and Sabalenka crumbled with the match on the line, issuing back-to-back double faults to 0-40 and sending a forehand long to fall after two hours and 21 minutes.
Fernandez hit 26 winners with 23 unforced errors to 52 unforced errors by Sabalenka with 45 winners.
Raducanu chases history
Sakkari and Raducanu were set for their first-ever meeting with a Slam final berth at stake.
Raducanu would be the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final after becoming only the fourth to reach a Slam semi-final, the first at the US Open.
Raducanu is trying to become the first British woman to win a Grand Slam title since Virginia Wade at Wimbledon in 1977 and the first British woman to win the US Open since Wade in 1968.
She would become only the second woman ranked outside the top 100 to reach a US Open final after unranked Kim Clijsters came out of retirement and won the 2009 US Open.