Leylah Fernandez stood on the podium, fighting back tears. She had finished an eloquent runner-up speech, looking as if all she wanted was to disappear underneath the stands of Arthur Ashe Stadium and get a hug from her family. But she prolonged her anguish for a few more minutes.
Fernandez, who had just lost in the U.S. Open women’s final, asked for the microphone back.
“I know on this day, it’s especially hard for New York and everyone around the United States,” she said, referring to the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “I just want to say that I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the last 20 years. Thank you for always having my back. Thank you for cheering for me. I love you, New York.”
It was a notable display of compassion from a woman who had just endured a crushing defeat, who had turned 19 five days earlier, and who had not been born when the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a passenger jet that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., occurred.
“The awareness and composure that she showed in that speech was just incredible,” said Patrick McEnroe, the former player and ESPN analyst. “She took a moment to acknowledge a somber event and the world around her. That was something.”
The young Canadian lost to Emma Raducanu, 6-4, 6-3. Raducanu, an 18-year-old from Britain, had to win three matches in the qualifying rounds to get into the main draw, and while she never lost a set, she faced only two seeded players in the tournament, neither in the top 10.
Fernandez’s stunning two-week journey may have been more revelatory in some ways, even considering the loss in the final. She had to beat four seeded players in a row, two of them past champions — No. 3 Naomi Osaka, No. 16 Angelique Kerber, No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. All of her matches went to three sets.
It was a transcendent performance, but some were equally impressed by how Fernandez handled herself afterward.
“Look at what we saw and heard from Leylah,” said Billie Jean King, the four-time U.S. Open singles champion, who stood at the podium alongside the players after the match. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that, ever, at any match. Have you?”
Fernandez said she woke up on Saturday, noticed the date, and asked her parents exactly what had happened 20 years ago. She heard about their personal experiences when they learned of the attacks, and about the terror of so many people in New York, across the United States and around the world. She felt compelled to address it.
“I just wanted to let them know that they’re so strong, they’re so resilient,” Fernandez said. “They’re just incredible. Just having them here happy, lively, just going back to the way they were, having my back during these tough moments, has made me stronger and has made me believe in myself a lot more.”
The toughest point for Fernandez happened late in the match, when Raducanu, who had scraped her leg, took a medical timeout. At the time, Fernandez had a break point and was within a point of getting the set back on serve. But Raducanu, who needed her left knee bandaged, came back on court and five points later closed out the match.
A frustrated Fernandez discussed the matter with the chair umpire during the timeout and again immediately after the match. As Fernandez sat in her chair, defeated, the umpire climbed down to explain the situation further. Fernandez became visibly upset, tearing up. But later, she conceded that the incident had been handled correctly.
“It just happened in the heat of the moment,” she said. “It was just too bad that it happened in that specific moment with me with the momentum. But it’s sports. It’s tennis. Just got to move on.”
It was a reflective moment for the teenager.
As a relative newcomer on tour, Fernandez was a largely unknown personality to many tennis fans. Most had seen only the ebullient version, celebrating her remarkable wins. Saturday was the first time they saw how she dealt with disappointment.
There were a couple of moments of frustration, some anguished stares and a few tears. But overall, she handled herself much the way champions do. She was proud of herself, and was able to see a bigger picture than one loss.
“Seeing my family and my fitness coach, my agents, all there smiling, having fun,” Fernandez said, “means a lot more to me than any victory.”
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