Filipina-Canadian teen Leylah Fernandez never stopped believing she could beat Naomi Osaka, not even when the 4-time Grand Slam champion was serving for the match, and her determination was rewarded.
One day before her 19th birthday, the 73rd-ranked player — daughter of an Ecuadoran father and Filipino-Canadian mother — battled back to deliver a stunning 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 upset of the world No. 3 from Japan.
"From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone who is in front of me," Fernandez said. "I've always had that belief. I've always tried to use that in every match.
"I guess today that belief came true."
So who is this 18-year-old rising star?
Fernandez was born in Laval, Quebec. Her father, Jorge Fernandez, is a former football player married to Irene Exevea, according to Tennistonic.com.
Leylah Annie Fernandez has two siblings: Bianca Jolie, who also plays tennis, and Jodeci, who works as a dentist.
She is fluent in English, French and Spanish.
Her father introduced her to sports as the age of 5, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
She tried football and track and field, but fell in love with tennis.
As a juniors player, Fernandez won the 2019 French Open girls singles crown, beating American Emma Navarro of the US in the final.
She is the first Canadian to win a girls junior Grand Slam crown since Eugenie Bouchard in 2012.
At 17, Fernandez turned pro and won her first professional title at the Gatineau Challenger by beating fellow Canadian Carson Branstine.
She entered her first Grand Slam competition at the 2020 Australian Open, but was eliminated in the opening round of the main draw.
In February 2020, Fernandez made it to the WTA final at the Mexico Open before losing to eventual champion Heather Watson, according to Yahoo! Sports.
She bounced back at the 2021 Monterrey Open last March, reaching the final without dropping a set. She dominated Viktorija Golubic en route to pocketing the title.
Fernandez, giant slayer
Her biggest win, undoubtedly was against Osaka.
Fernandez will next face with 2016 US Open champion Angelique Kerber.
Fernandez, coached by her dad, solved Osaka's serve in the 12th game of the second set as the defending champion was serving for the match.
Instead, Fernandez broke to force a tie-breaker, the rolled to a 5-0 lead while Osaka was slamming her racquet to the court in frustration.
"I was very happy how I played in the first set. In the break I was telling myself to stay positive, keep fighting. 'I'm there. I'm close,'" Fernandez said.
"In the second set, I guess on the very last game I found the solution to the problem of returning her serve. I'm glad I found it."
Fernandez said it was a matter of finding the proper position to deal with Osaka's first serve, which landed 63% of the time to 80% for Fernandez.
"I was trying to find different looks," Fernandez said. "I started off really far from the line. Then I was just edging closer and closer. Finally I found a pattern to her serve. I just trusted my gut and hit the ball.
"From then on I was just fighting, using the crowd's energy, putting the ball back in as much as I can, just be offensive and go for my shots."
More than even her first WTA title in March at Monterrey, the victory over Osaka has brought Fernandez faith in what she's doing.
"It gives me a lot of confidence," she said. "It shows my game is improving and it's there in the top. I was able to beat a very great, amazing player.
"I don't know why finally my game is clicking. The past few months, even after Monterrey, I've been working hard, training super well. My coach, my dad, is saying be patient, have confidence in your game, it will show in matches. I'm glad it finally did."
Osaka, who said after the loss she was taking a break from tennis, has played an inspirational role for Fernandez.
"Naomi is a great person, a great player. She has done so many good things on tour," Fernandez said.
"Just seeing her and learning from her game has helped me shape who I am right now. She's a great example for anybody that's on tour and all the little girls in the world.
"I'm just glad I had the opportunity to play against her and show everyone that I'm also able to compete against the best players up there." — With a report from Agence France-Presse
FROM THE ARCHIVES