Global citizens, teen US Open finalists have fans all over

Sports

Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, reacts after defeating Aryna Sabalenka,of Belarus, during the semifinals of the US Open tennis championships, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK (AP) — Emma Raducanu first met Leylah Fernandez at a tournament for players 12 and under, around the time one of Fernandez’s teachers urged her to give up the tennis dream.

They shared a love of the game and a connection to Canada, where Fernandez lived and Raducanu was born, helping build a quick relationship. But the teenagers have much more in common — maybe more than they realized.

They will attract an audience to their U.S. Open women’s final Saturday that extends far beyond the fans who will be at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“I just think that the matchup and what we’re seeing — those two ladies are touching a lot of young girls,” said Jorge Fernandez, Leylah’s father and coach.

People will be watching in Asia: The 18-year-old Raducanu’s mother is from China and the 19-year-old Fernandez’s is Filipino Canadian.

And in Latin America: Jorge Fernandez is from Ecuador.

And in Europe: Raducanu’s father is from Romania.

And, of course, in Canada: Fernandez was born in Montreal (although she has been based in Florida for several years); Raducanu was born in Toronto and still holds a passport from that country (her family moved to England when she was 2).

Beyond being terrific tennis players, these teenagers are citizens of the world.

“This can only be good for the tennis game and for the WTA altogether,” said Jorge Fernandez, who answered questions during a Zoom interview Friday in English, Spanish and French.

Leylah Fernandez was relatively unknown in the Philippines and Ecuador before beating defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round. She has since drawn plenty of attention from local media in both countries, with mentions of her family’s roots.

Char Abalos was among the fans who woke up early Friday in Manila to watch Fernandez beat No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka in a semifinal match that took place Thursday night in New York.

“She looks very calm but at the same time cheerful in the court,” Abalos said, noting that many tennis players are often quick to frown. “Leylah is so calm, just making sure that the crowd is enjoying.”

The player who emerges Saturday as a new face of tennis will be a lot like last year’s U.S. Open champion. Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, with the family moving to New York when she was young.

Tennis also sent this year’s finalists on the move — in Fernandez’s case, her mother moved to California to help support the family while Leylah and her father remained in Canada to train.

Now, they live together in Florida, where Jorge Fernandez has remained during these two weeks while coaching from afar via phone conversations. He’s noticed the messages of encouragement that in recent days included tweets from Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Leylah Fernandez didn’t always have such support.

She remembers being in the fifth or sixth grade and being encouraged to quit spending so much time on her backhand and pay more attention to the blackboard.

“I remember one teacher, which was actually very funny — at the time wasn’t, but now I’m laughing,” Fernandez said. “She told me to stop playing tennis, ‘You will never make it and just focus on school.’”

Instead, her family dug in more, with Jorge Fernandez remembering his daughter winning a tournament at 12 that featured players who were 16. Perhaps that got her ready for a U.S. Open draw that featured three players ranked in the top five.

After beating all of them in three sets, including Osaka, her opponent is Raducanu, who wasn’t even in the top 350 a few months ago. Nor was she even guaranteed to be in the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, having to play her way into the main draw through the qualifying rounds.

She is the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final. Raducanu beat Fernandez in the junior Wimbledon tournament in 2018, but their skills — and fans — have only grown.

“Obviously since then, we’ve both come very far in our games and as people,” Raducanu said. “I’m sure it’s going to be extremely different to when we last encountered each other.”

This meeting is the first Grand Slam final between teenagers since the 1999 U.S. Open, when Serena Williams, 17, beat Martina Hingis, 18.

Fernandez will be trying to give Canada its second 19-year-old champion in three years, after Bianca Andreescu beat Williams to win the 2019 title.

If that match felt like a changing of the guard in women’s tennis, well, Saturday’s final seems like another sped-up version of that, pitting players born 2 months apart in 2002.

Raducanu still remembers watching the 2011 French Open final, when Li Na became the first player from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title in a match viewed by more than 115 million people in China.

“I think for me, having a Chinese mom, she definitely instilled from a young age hard work, discipline,” Raducanu said. “I think for me, when I was younger, I would take a lot of inspiration from Li Na, even now, just the way she was such a fierce competitor.”

Jorge Fernandez sees his wife’s influence providing the same fighting spirit on his daughter’s game.

“She’s got Filipino blood in her,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Their pursuit of tennis success from opposite sides of the Atlantic made it difficult for Fernandez and Raducanu to keep up the relationship that started when they bonded over their Canadian roots during a tournament in Florida.

Raducanu said they say hello whenever they see each other. On Saturday, they can do it standing across the net from each other in the biggest stadium in the sport.

“I’m sure there will be a good atmosphere for both of us,” Raducanu said.

The world will be watching.

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Associated Press writer Kiko Rosario in Manila, Philippines contributed to this report.

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