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Canada’s Flushing Meadows darling Fernandez comes up short in US Open women’s final

A remarkable run to the US Open final ended in disappointment for Canada’s Leylah Fernandez
Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, returns a shot to Emma Raducanu, of Britain, during the women’s singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

A remarkable run to the US Open final ended in disappointment Saturday — and a measure of controversy — for Canada’s Leylah Fernandez.

She dropped a 6-4, 6-3 decision to British qualifier Emma Raducanu, who managed to claim the women’s championship at Flushing Meadows without losing a single set throughout the tournament.

Remarkably, it was the first Grand Slam final appearance for both players.

“It’s incredible,” the 73rd-ranked Fernandez said of her unexpected run to the final, her tear-stained, smiling face a picture of mixed emotions during the post-match on-court interview.

“I want to be back here next year,” she added with a grin, “only with the right trophy.”

And as if the New York fans didn’t love her enough, Fernandez acknowledged Saturday’s 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying, “I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the last 20 years.”

Fernandez seemed to struggle with her serve throughout the afternoon, managing to land only 56 per cent of her first serves and double-faulting five times, often at the most critical moments.

But as she’s done throughout the tournament, just when it began to look like she was flagging, an acrobatic backhand or blistering down-the-line forehand would find a corner of the court just outside Raducanu’s reach.

More than once, she took what seemed a certain win for Raducanu and gradually wore her back to deuce, often ending exhaustive rallies with a delicate little backhand slice that pulled her opponent to the net and out of position.

She did it again at one of the most critical moments of the match: with Raducanu leading 5-2 in the second set and poised over the championship point, Fernandez battled back to win the game to the delight of an appreciative crowd.

Other times, a fearsome cross-court forehand out of nowhere would send Raducanu diving in vain, a wry smile crossing Fernandez’s face.

But the cool-headed Brit had more than a few tricks up her sleeve, including a powerful one-handed forehand Fernandez was often helpless to catch.

The 18-year-old qualifier betrayed no evidence of nerves, often blowing on her fingertips after a hard-won point or piercing the air with a triumphant shout.

“She played incredible tennis,” Raducanu said before carting off the championship trophy.

“I thought the level was extremely high, and I hope we play each other in many more tournaments — and hopefully finals.”

The normally emotive Fernandez seemed almost subdued throughout the match, allowing herself only modest little fist-pumps, despite the encouragement of a New York crowd that was clearly smitten with both young stars.

That changed late in the second set, where — sensing opportunity where others might find only despair — the fist pumps came more quickly, the smiles more easily, often with a knowing glance at her trainer and family members in the crowd.

That’s when Raducanu, her right knee bloodied by a sliding shot attempt, was granted a medical time-out, a development that seemed to visibly frustrate her opponent.

Fernandez could be seen arguing with officials about the decision to grant the time-out, particularly at a moment in the match when she was clearly riding a wave of momentum.

“I want to play,” she told the official at one point.

The 19-year-old Fernandez, a Montreal native, has enthralled the crowds in New York with her unexpected run to her first career Grand Slam final.

Fernandez, who’s based in Boynton Beach, Fla., but represents Canada, defeated WTA Tour stars Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka en route to the championship.

She was ranked 73rd in the world at the start of the tournament but has played like a seasoned veteran.

Her opponent was also an unexpected finalist: Raducanu, the world No. 150, is a Toronto native who moved overseas to the London area at age two. She needed to get through the qualifying rounds just to make it to the main draw.

Montreal’s Felix Auger-Aliassime reached the men’s singles semifinals before falling to Russia’s Daniil Medvedev on Friday afternoon.

– James McCarten, The Canadian Press