Teenage sensation Leylah Anne Fernandez has taken the tennis world by storm. Can she continue her Cinderella story with a win over Aryna Sabalenka? Which player is the right WTA pick?
Aryna Sabalenka vs. Leylah Annie Fernandez
Thursday, September 09, 2021 – 07:00 PM EDT at Arthur Ashe Stadium
Leylah Anne Fernandez is a talented young Canadian woman. She has come into her own this fortnight. Fernandez started the US Open with a seven-six, six-two victory over veteran Ana Konjuh. She then beat the powerhouse Kaia Kanepi seven-five, seven-five. While these are solid wins, her third-round match was the match that forced the tennis world to stand up and take notice.
Fernandez beat defending Champion Naomi Osaka in a three-set thriller in the third round. Fernandez won five-seven, seven-six, six-four. Fernandez won over the US Open crowd with a fiery spirit and fierce shot-making. Fernandez played brilliantly under pressure delivering big serves and timely drop shots in order to frustrate Osaka, and send her away from the tennis world for a while.
Osaka seemed to shrink under the pressure while Fernandez's star shone brighter. It felt like a changing of the guard moment, for the time being at least. Fernandez then beat former Grand Slam champion Angie Kerber six-four, six-seven, six-two. Another match when Fernandez shined under pressure and in the third set she totally took the match to Kerber.
She had 11 winners and seven unforced errors in the third set and even managed to win 75% of net points. Kerber plays a defensive style similar to Kerber and for her to beat the skillful Kerber at her own game is a definite sign that she is improving. In the quarterfinals, she defeated Elina Svitolina, who has been playing some beautiful tennis up until this point.
This match showed Fernandez's fortitude as it was six-three three-six seven-six and it was seven-five in the tiebreaker. Fernandez had to pull out big shots in pressure situations and once again showed that her fighting spirit matched her talented game. Svitolina plays a similar defensive style but doesn’t have the similarity in the physical frame as Fernandez.
Aryna Sabalenka has had a more dominant path to the semis, only dropping one set. Sabalenka beat Nina Stojanovic, then Tamara Zidansek. In the third round, she beat the fiery Danielle Collins in convincing fashion. The win over Collins was important because it showed she can beat a defensive-minded player similar to her upcoming match.
At that point, we all had to admit that Sabalenka would be a serious contender to lift the trophy. She followed that up with a win over Elise Mertens six-four, six-one. Mertens' style is a matchup dream for Sabalenka. Still, the win over Mertens showed how she can punish consistent players with no power. She would be put to test in the next round facing Roland Garros Champion Barbara Krejcikova.
Krejcikova has been a breakout success on the tour this year and is playing some of the best tennis of any player on the WTA tour this season. Krejcikova proved her French Open title was not a fluke by following it up with brilliant tennis. Once again, Sabalenka won the match easily six-one, six-four. Sabalenka’s wins have been completely impressive. She is no longer falling into lulls in matches where she gives away three-four games.
Sabalenka's power game against Fernandez's defense is a classic tennis match-up. Before the tournament, I would have been worried about Fernandez's ability to hang with a big hitter, but as she showed against Naomi Osaka, power bothers her less and less as her career continues. Fernandez has also been very tactical with her serve which allows her to hold more often than she was earlier this season.
While we still have to give the stylistic advantage to Sabalenka in this matchup, this match is not as one-sided as it would have seemed a couple of months ago. In fact, with Leylah getting more experience against the big hitters of the tour, it can be said that she is well prepared to take on the Belarussian powerhouse.
I do believe that there is some value in Fernandez as an underdog, but I think the best bet here is simply to play them over. With the way Fernandez is playing, she will definitely trouble Sabalenka and I could easily see a tie-break or a three-set battle. At over 21, there is plenty of value in seeing this match go the distance. I don't mind a sprinkle on the Fernandez money line, but the over is the best bet.
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