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

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NEW YORK — Denied the US Open championship trophy, Leylah Fernandez decided to make off with the spotlight instead.

Visibly exhausted, her face both beaming and wet with tears, the 19-year-old Fernandez — bested in Saturday's women's final in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, by an even younger British tennis darling — refused to say goodbye to Flushing Meadows.

Rather: until next time.

"I want to be back here next year," Fernandez told the fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium, basking in their sustained affection, before she hoisted the runner-up's ubiquitous silver platter, that perennial symbol of second place.

"Only, with the right one," she added. "With the right trophy."

And then, as if the New York crowd didn't love her enough, Fernandez acknowledged the awkward timing of Saturday's championship match, coming as it did on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Thank you for having my back, thank you for cheering me on," she said. "I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the last 20 years."

What might have been a fairy-tale finish for a new Canadian tennis star was instead a coming-out party for a British one: Emma Raducanu, 18, a qualifier who made it through to the end without dropping a single set, taking home the hardware and a US$2.5-million cheque for her trouble.

For Fernandez, what had been a remarkable run to the final ended in disappointment, as well as a measure of controversy.

She 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.

"Unfortunately, today I just made one too many mistakes, and I think Emma noticed it and she took advantage of it," Fernandez said.

"I'm still disappointed; I think this loss, I'm going to carry it for a very long time, and I think it will motivate me to do better training and be better for the next opportunity I get."

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 of Fernandez 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.

Later, she shrugged it off, saying she wasn't aware how seriously Raducanu was hurt, and attributed her complaint to the heat of the moment.

"It was just too bad that it happened at that specific moment, with me and the momentum that I had," she said.

"It's sports, it's tennis, and you've just got to move on."

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.

On Sunday, Medvedev will seek to spoil Serbian sensation Novak Djokovic's bid to be the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four Grand Slam titles in the same calendar year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2021.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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