Alcaraz and Fernandez turn teenage dream into reality

18-year-olds Carlos Alcaraz and Leylah Fernandez won back-to-back epics on Arthur Ashe Stadium to topple title contenders.

Carlos Alcaraz US Open 2021©Garrett Ellwood/USTA
 - Alex Sharp

Oh, to have had an Arthur Ashe Stadium ticket on Friday.

Not only did Garbine Muguruza take down Victoria Azarenka in a three-set opener, Frances Tiafoe closed the night in the early hours with an electric five-set clash with No.5 seed Andrey Rublev.

Neither result really hit the headlines.

Two teenagers, both 18-years-old, both secured seismic shocks at the US Open and helped produce one of the most memorable Grand Slam nights in recent history.

The much-heralded Carlos Alcaraz edged world No.3 Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(2), 0-6, 7-6(5) to charge into the second week on debut in New York.

Over to Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, the 2019 Roland-Garros girls’ winner, who fought back from the brink 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4 to halt Naomi Osaka’s title defence. 

Alcaraz and Fernandez move into a major second week for the first time. From their Friday night fireworks, it might become a formality in the future. 

Alcaraz following Federer framework

One point truly summed up Alcaraz’s immense potential. 1-2 down in the decider, the Spaniard illustrated his extensive retrieval skills to clip a backhand lob on the slide, before reading the Tsitsipas approach and laser-beaming a forehand passing shot.

The world No.55 raised his index finger, saluting ‘No.1’ to the crowd, his coach and former world No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero’s eyebrows raised in a look of approval. 

There are obvious comparisons with his compatriot Rafael Nadal, but Alcaraz picks another ‘Big Three’ pantheon as an inspiration. 

“Honestly I don't copy any style of a players. I just play my game. But if I have to say one player that is similar my game, I think it's (Roger) Federer, trying to be aggressive all the time.”

Federer has won the US Open five times and Alcaraz was producing a front-foot firebrand of tennis to prove he’s on the right path, destined to the top like so many pundits predict. 

Spread on the court after match point, the tears flowing, Alcaraz became the youngest man into the US Open fourth round since Michael Chang (17) and Pete Sampras (18) in 1989. Some move from the Murcia native. 

“When I fall into the court at the end of the match I thought my family and my friends, every person that was supporting me from Murcia from the beginning of this history when I was a kid,” stated Alcaraz, scrambling for the English dialect to reflect the best night of his career.

“I just don't know what happened out there in the court. I can't believe that I beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in an epic match. For me it's a dream come true.”

Next up, a last 16 bout with German qualifier Peter Gojowczyk.  

Leylah Fernandez US Open 2021©Mike Lawrence/USTA

Fernandez puts on a show

Just like Alcaraz, world No.73 Fernandez has been lauded by players and media for a few seasons now, waiting for that major breakthrough. It arrived in style on Friday night.

The Canadian simply stated “BELIEVE” on Instagram having reeled in defending champion Osaka. It seems Fernandez feels mentally prepared to navigate through the major maze.

“From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone, anyone who is in front of me. Even playing different sports, I was always that competitive, saying I'm going to win against them, I'm going to win against my dad in soccer, even though that's like impossible,” said Fernandez, earning a shot against 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in the fourth round.

“I've always had that belief. I've always tried to use that in every match that I go on.

I guess today that belief came true.”

Reigning champion Osaka looked to have earned a tough victory up a break 6-5 in the second set, but Fernandez had other ideas, pounding returns, slicing and dicing to eventually steal away a decider. 

"I guess I wanted to stay on court a little bit longer and I wanted to put on a show for everybody here,” beamed the Canadian during her on-court interview.

It was a show for sure.

Naomi Osaka Leylah Fernandez US Open 2021©Pete Staples/USTA

At 5-3 up in the third set Fernandez clipped a deft backhand pick-up volley. It was almost exhibition worthy, the 18-year-old blocking out the magnitude of the occasion and opponent, orchestrating the crowd like she was on Broadway. 

“I wasn't really focused on Naomi. I was only focused on myself, my game, what I needed to do,” stated Fernandez, welcoming raucous support following some sumptuous shots.

“Having the crowd there supporting me and backing me up after every point, it's amazing. It gave me the energy to keep fighting, to keep working and keep running for those balls that she hit.

“I was just glad that I was able to put on a show for everyone that came to watch. Once I hit my first ball, I told myself, Okay, this is the moment. I just went to work.”

Learning the ropes from Osaka 

Fernandez, who lifted a maiden WTA title in Monterrey in March, revealed her 2021 goal was to crack the Top 10. Lofty but realistic ambitions. 

“Naomi is a great person, a great player. She's done so many good things on tour,” continued the Canadian, paying tribute to her opponent. 

“I've watched her win the US Open. I watched her win the Australian Open. 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 that I had the opportunity to play against her tonight and to show everyone that I'm also able to compete against the best players up there.”