NEW YORK — Raising her right fist overhead to celebrate shot after shot, 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez demonstrated that her upset of defending champion Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open was certainly no fluke by beating another past title winner at Flushing Meadows.
With grit and guile, and a veteran’s poise in the face of a big deficit against a much more accomplished opponent, the unseeded Fernandez grabbed the last five games to beat 2016 champion Angelique Kerber 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 in the fourth round in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“At the end it, was just two, three points which decide the match,” the 16th-seeded Kerber said. “She took it in her hands.”
Just like against Osaka in Arthur Ashe Stadium two nights earlier, Fernandez dropped the opening set. Just like against Osaka, Fernandez trailed in the second set, too – this time, Kerber led by a break at 4-2.
But for the second match in a row on a big court, the 73rd-ranked Canadian got the crowd on her side, exulting each time she hit one of her on-the-run, impossible-angle groundstrokes. She’d pump a fist. She’d windmill her arms. And she got to do so repeatedly, ending up with a 45-28 edge in winners.
How does Fernandez remain steady in these tight matches against foes who’ve been through these sorts of moments much more than she has?
“I honestly don’t know,” Fernandez said. “I just try to use all my training from back home. They told me to take it point by point and that’s what I tried to focus on. I was glad I was able to execute it.”
Fernandez is a left-hander who redirects opponent’s shots swiftly and seemingly with ease, sometimes dropping to a knee near the baseline to get the proper leverage. That’s a very similar style to the one Kerber used to reach No. 1 in the rankings and claim three Grand Slam titles.
“She’s always … enjoying her tennis out there,” Kerber said. “I think she can go really far in the next few years.”
Kerber would know. She has won more matches at the U.S. Open – and at all Grand Slam tournaments – than any other woman in the draw. She is 33 and has been playing well enough to get to the Wimbledon semifinals in July.
But she could not stay with Fernandez and seemed bothered by it, looking over at her guest box with arms spread apart while muttering something in the final game.
It wasn’t much earlier in the match that she seemed to be steadying herself and ready to push Fernandez in the third set. Indeed, Kerber held a break point with a chance to go up 3-1, but Fernandez erased that chance with a cross-court forehand winner.
Kerber wouldn’t claim another game.
She tried to make a final stand when Fernandez served for the victory. Kerber again got to break point, but Fernandez delivered an on-the-run forehand winner get to deuce. A corner-to-corner backhand that somehow extended a point before Kerber missed created a match point. And Kerber’s backhand into the net ended it.
Fernandez raised both arms, then leaned forward with her hands on her knees and smiled. She stood and patted her chest with her palm, while Kerber walked around the net to offer a clasp of hands and an arm around Fernandez’s shoulders.
Now Fernandez, who only once had been as far as the third round at a major tournament until now, will meet No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals.
“Hopefully,” Fernandez told the Armstrong crowd, “you guys will all be there cheering me on, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Fernandez is among several fresh faces making moves at this most tumultuous of U.S. Opens, where the question at the start of each day has become, “Who will pull off a surprise?” – and there tend to be multiple answers by each night.
Consider Botic van de Zandschulp part of Sunday’s group. He’s a 25-year-old Dutchman ranked 117th who became just the third male qualifier to get to the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows since the Open era began in 1968.
As it is, only nine seeded men made it to Week 2, the fewest at the U.S. Open since 2005, and van de Zandschulp reduced the total by one with a 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 5-7, 6-1 victory over No. 11 Diego Schwartzman in 4 hours, 20 minutes.
“Before the tournament,” van de Zandschulp observed, “no one expected me to reach the quarterfinals here.”
After all, he had a 2-3 career record in Grand Slam matches until this tournament. And he was enough of an unknown quantity that Schwartzman watched some videos of old matches to get a sense of what to anticipate.
Even that didn’t work.
“I was thinking he was trying to play aggressive, trying to do winners. It was a little bit different. He was doing the slices, passing shots,” said Schwartzman, a semifinalist at last year’s French Open. “The mix that he did, it was working.”
Now comes a tough test against No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, a two-time major finalist who moved on – as expected – by beating Dan Evans 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
The other men’s fourth-round matchups later Sunday were 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz – who defeated No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday – against qualifier Peter Gojowczyk, and No. 12 Felix-Auger Aliassime against Frances Tiafoe.
For the women, it was No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka vs. No. 15 Elise Mertens, and two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza vs. 2021 French Open champ Barbora Krejcikova.