In a historic moment for Canadian tennis, 19-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez and 21-year-old Felix Auger Aliassime are through to the U.S. Open semifinals, marking the first time a Canuck man and woman have reached the semifinals of a singles draw in the Open Era.
The two Montreal natives have shocked the tennis world—as well as some of the highest ranked players in the game, including Naomi Osaka—en route to each of their first semifinals at a Grand Slam. It couldn’t have come at a better time, with sports fans across the country taking notice of the pair of young Canadians and even learning to appreciate the game of tennis a little more, which only makes sense given how thrilling the tennis has been.
“It’s great for Canada,” Auger Aliassme said of their success. “I mean, I never thought a day like this would come. Both a little girl and a little boy from Montreal, both at the same time in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. It’s special. It’s special for us. I hope the people back home appreciate the moment also. We do a lot. It’s great.”
“But it would be amazing if we were both in a final, right?”
Fernandez will have a chance to get there on Thursday against No. 2 ranked WTA player Aryna Sabalenka, and Auger Aliassme will get his chance on Friday against 2019 U.S. Open runner-up and No. 2 ATP ranked Daniil Medvedev. And while both players are playing some of the best tennis of their lives right now, with the confidence and mental fortitude to go all the way, it’s worth taking a moment to understand how they got here and to appreciate just how difficult of an uphill climb it has been. Despite their youth, both players have carried themselves with the confidence of champions and defeated some of tennis’ biggest giants along the way, all on one of the games brightest stages at Flushing Meadows in New York.
Fernandez started her tournament with straight set wins against Ana Konjuh of Croatia and then Kaia Kanepi of Estonia. But for a teenager who entered the tournament ranked 73rd in the world participating in only the seventh major tournament of her career, Fernandez wasn’t expected to put up much of a fight against 2020 U.S. Open champion and No. 3 ranked tennis sensation Naomi Osaka in the third round. And after Osaka took the opening set 5-7, it certainly looked like Fernandez’s run was coming to an end.
In fact, Osaka had a chance to send Fernandez home in the second set of their third round matchup, serving for the match at 5-6, but Fernandez battled back, taking the second tiebreak and finally the third set, 7-6, 6-4, causing Osaka to melt down in the process.
“I guess I wanted to stay on court a little bit longer,” Fernandez joked after the match. “And I wanted to put on a show for everyone here. An hour was just not enough for me on court.”
That resilient attitude has propelled Fernandez to the semifinal, showcasing a patience and fearlessness usually reserved for tennis’ most established stars, and certainly not for a teenager who turned 19 during the tournament. Nothing has been given to Fernandez, who has had to fight through a murderers’ row of top-ranked players and former U.S. Open champions, with her previous three matches all demanding three sets and Fernandez winning a tiebreaker in each of them, ultimately defeating No. 16 ranked Angelique Kerber in the round of 16, 6-4, 6-7, 2-6, and finally No. 5 ranked Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinal, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6. Fernandez became the youngest player to beat two players ranked in the WTA’s top five at the same major since Serena Williams at the 1999 U.S. Open, when she won the first of her 23 grand slam titles. No pressure.
Fernandez is now the youngest woman to reach the final four in Flushing Meadows since 18-year-old Maria Sharapova did it in 2005. Plus, she is only two steps away from duplicating the feat of compatriot Bianca Andreescu, who herself was 19 when she captured the 2019 U.S. Open women’s singles championship.
“I think we’re all just super hungry to make a difference in the tennis world,” Fernandez said after her semifinal berth.
But despite the momentum and confidence building for Fernandez, she will once again be the underdog against No. 2 ranked Sabalenka on Thursday, who not only towers over the 5-foot-6 Fernandez by half a foot, but is yet to drop a single set since her opening match. In fact, Sabelanka hasn’t had a match go longer than an hour and a half since the opener, whereas Fernandez, who has also played three doubles matches in this tournament, is yet to have a singles match go under that timespan, with her longest coming in the quarterfinal against Svitolina at 2 hours and 24 minutes.
Fortunately, fitness is a huge part of Fernandez’s training, with her father and coach Jorge also preaching: “Finesse, mental toughness, and speed. A lot of precision tennis, and every now and again, a knockout punch.”
After making his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon back in July, Auger Aliassime suffered a setback at the Tokyo Olympics, losing in the first round to No. 198 ranked Max Purcell of Australia. It was primed to be a big tournament for Auger Aliassime, the No. 15 ranked player in the world at the time who was yet to advance past the semifinal of an ATP Masters since turning pro in 2017, but instead of letting the disappointment of Tokyo get to him, Auger Aliassime moved on.
Now, still at just 21 years of age, the 6-foot-4 Montrealer is the first man from Canada to reach the U.S. Open semifinals in tournament history, and the youngest male player to reach the last four at the U.S. Open since 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro.
While Auger Aliassime has always shown flashes of brilliance, he has historically struggled to play at a high level over the full length of major tournaments. But what stands out in this U.S. Open has been his consistency and patience, defeating Russia's Evgeny Donskoyand Spain’s Bernabe Zapata Miralles in the opening rounds before a gruelling five-set battle against No. 18 seed Roberto Bautista Agut that lasted nearly four hours. After taking the first two sets, Bautista Agut battled back and won the next two, but it was ultimately Auger Aliassime’s steady serve that took him through, with 77 winners including 27 aces in the match, winning 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3.
However, not to be outdone, it was America’s Frances Tiafoe that matched up against Auger Aliassime in the round of 16 in a highly anticipated matchup between two of tennis’ best young stars that did not disappoint. After losing the first set 4-6, failing to convert on his first 8 breakpoint opportunities, Auger Aliassime regained his composure and played nearly perfect tennis for the rest of the match, winning the third set tiebreak 8-6 to remain a perfect 5-0 in tiebreaks in the tournament. Once again, Auger Aliassime was able to rely on his serve, hammering 24 aces and ultimately defeating the American in four sets, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6, 6-4.
In another highly anticipated quarterfinal matchup against Spanish 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, Auger Aliassime walked away with a victory just one hour and eight minutes in when Alcaraz retired in the second set due to injury, trailing 6-3, 3-1.
While it was an unfortunate way to win, the short match means Auger Aliassime should have lots of energy for his semifinal matchup against 2019 U.S. Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev on Friday. The pair have shared the court once before, with Medvedev claiming a three-set victory over the Canadian at the Canadian Open in 2018. It will be an opportunity for Auger Aliassime to get revenge, but he knows nothing will come easy against the No. 2 player in the world.
“He’s one of the best players on hard courts right now,” Auger-Aliassime said of Medvedev. “Especially here, he loves playing here. I need to play my best tennis, I need to serve well again, I need to come in behind my shots, put pressure on him, [and] mix things up.”
Co-coached by Toni Nadal, the legendary uncle and former coach of tennis legend Rafael Nadal, Auger-Aliassime is getting more comfortable playing long matches and battling through adversity to victories that he could have only dreamed of a year ago. Auger-Aliassime has always had the talent, and he is finally breaking through on one of tennis’ biggest stages.
Between Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime—as well as Bianca Andreescu and Denis Shapovalov, who lost in the fourth and third round of the Open, respectively— we are witnessing the beginning of a dominant era for Canadian tennis. And with tennis giants like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal getting older and less dominant, and Osaka signalling that she will be taking a break from the sport, the field is as open as it has ever been for these Canadian stars to not only influence the sport in the coming years, but to one day overwhelm it.