Fernandez and Alcaraz lead the charge of a new generation

Young Canadian and Spaniard exuding confidence as they target more shocks

As Leylah Annie Fernandez basked in the joy of her improbable third round comeback win over Naomi Osaka earlier last week, she was asked on the court in her post-match interview at what point she truly believed that she could topple such a champion. Her response was immediate.

“From the very beginning,” Fernandez said. The crowd reacted with a surprised murmur. “Right before the match, I knew I was able to win.”

Against Osaka, the third seed, Fernandez had trailed 7-5, 6-5 as Osaka served for a straight sets win.

Two days later, Angelique Kerber led their contest 6-4, *4-3 and appeared to have taken the upper hand in a tight tussle. Both times that Fernandez found herself at the cliff-edge, she elevated her level and recovered her footing to win.


Her win on Sunday against Kerber, who had played well herself, was even more impressive. After falling down a set and a break, Fernandez snatched control of the match by exhibiting all of the various qualities that define her: her athleticism, her forehand’s sublime racquet head speed, her court sense and the return of serve that ravaged Kerber throughout.

Not long after Fernandez had reached her maiden quarter-final, Carlos Alcaraz of Spain followed. Alcaraz had already pulled off a stunning upset of Stefanos Tsitsipas, the third seed, by complimenting his nuclear groundstrokes with delicate drop shots and athleticism.

But while beating a top player in front of a roaring crowd on the biggest tennis court in the world is a great achievement, so many more established players are floored by the task of consolidating life-changing successes.

Alcaraz returned two days later as the favourite against a lower-ranked player, Peter Gojowczyk, on the smaller grandstand court, and ground out a second consecutive five-set win.

This US Open had started with the pre-tournament withdrawals of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, a reminder of a generation soon to depart, and the youthful charge in the following weeks have underlined the thrills that remain.

The world No55 Alcaraz, who only turned 18 in May, is the youngest men’s player in the Open era to reach the quarter-final of the US Open. The No73 Fernandez, who celebrated her 19th birthday on Monday, toppled the third and fourth most successful active players in consecutive matches.

With far less top level experience than either of them, Britain’s Emma Raducanu, 18, continues to break new ground.

Fleeting period

It is no surprise that they are breaking through. Fernandez, a Canadian whose family hails from Ecuador and the Philippines, won the French Open juniors in 2019 and Alcaraz is a hyped, precocious talent. But their confidence is also both innate and supreme. It is partly borne out of their youth, this fleeting period of their development where they are too young to grasp the significance of what they are achieving.

Against Tsitsipas, Alcaraz’s legs were faltering under the unfamiliar strain of such a high octane five-set match, Alcaraz lost the fourth set with a 6-0 bagel as his serve pace had diminished significantly.

But as he notched up service games in the final set, he would constantly make eye contact with his coach, the former No1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, simply to share reassuring nods. There was not a single point in that fifth set where he did not see himself as the eventual winner.

Fernandez’s confidence is even more pronounced. She started the year by unflinchingly telling a group of tennis journalists, to some surprise, that her goal for the season was to finish in the top 10. When Fernandez was asked on Sunday what had most surprised her about her run, she simply said that she had expected her tennis to guide her to this point one day.

“I’m not surprised of anything that’s happening right now,” she said. “I’m just glad that it’s happening now and not later in the year,”

Between that striking self-assurance immediately after toppling Osaka and the unabashed confidence she has exhibited since, some are put off by her intensity.

Sports fans often want their stars to be fearless but also to exude near-apologetic “humility” and “class”. But in order to pull off such improbable achievements, having the confidence to believe beyond odds, logic and reason that they are better than the opponents across the net is essential.

On Tuesday, Alcaraz will face another much-hyped young player in the quarter-final, 21-year-old Felix Auger Aliassime, while Fernandez will battle the experienced sixth seed Elina Svtolina. They have already come so far and they will chase for more.

– Guardian