WEATHER ALERT

Fernandez a bright light in a sometimes dark world Canadian-born U.S. Open women's finalists share similar backgrounds as they share on tennis's biggest spotlight

It is the stuff of dreams. Of fantasy and folklore. Of Hollywood movie scripts and Broadway productions. It represents everything that is good and wholesome about sports. And, more importantly, about life.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/09/2021 (381 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is the stuff of dreams. Of fantasy and folklore. Of Hollywood movie scripts and Broadway productions. It represents everything that is good and wholesome about sports. And, more importantly, about life.

Whether you are a hardcore tennis fan or don’t know an overhead smash from a backhand volley, how can you not be reeled in by what has gone down under the bright lights of the Big Apple over the last few days — and what will culminate Saturday on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, just miles away from where the World Trade Center fell.

We are watching history in the making, a surreal U.S. Open final that won’t soon be forgotten for myriad reasons. And it says here that, regardless of the outcome, there are no losers in this incredible tale. Only winners.

Seth Wenig / The Associated Press Leylah Fernandez began the tournament as a virtual unknown, just the 73rd-ranked player in the world and not exactly a household name.

On one side you have Leylah Annie Fernandez, a huge talent in a tiny frame who just celebrated her 19th birthday earlier this week. Her father, coach and biggest fan, Jorge, came to Canada from Ecuador with his own parents at the age of four in search of a better life. And boy, did he ever find it. Her mother, Irene, was born in Toronto to parents who had immigrated from the Philippines for the exact same reasons.

A classic story, one in which the very foundation of this country has been built on.

“Canada has done so much for us,” the Montreal-born Fernandez told ESPN after her incredible semi-final victory on Thursday night, once again triumphing over a higher-ranked, more accomplished opponent. “They never had it easy, but they fought for everything and all the opportunities that they got, they did it two times more just for me and my whole family, for my sister, so that we could have a better life. So we can enjoy as much as we can, and not have the difficulties that they had.”

Wise, and important words, especially in a world that continues to be painfully divided by racism, cultural stereotypes and bias and xenophobia. That includes right here in our own backyard, as much as some may not want to admit it.

Fernandez began the tournament as a virtual unknown, just the 73rd-ranked player in the world and not exactly a household name. Now, she is the darling of the sport after taking down some of the giants in the game, thanks to a wicked ground game, lightning quick reflexes and a never-say-die attitude.

She’s also the source of national pride and, I would suggest, exactly what we all need in these turbulent times. Her father, fighting back tears in an emotional chat with TSN the other day, clearly recognized the magnitude of the situation, spreading an important message in the process.

Elise Amendola / The Associated Press Fernandez returns a shot to Aryna Sabalenka during the semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis championships Thursday in New York.

“You know, there’s a lot of talk in the news about immigrant people, and I understand nationalist sentiments and I understand how we need to protect… I understand all that,” he said, fighting back tears.

“I don’t want to get political, that’s not what I’m doing. What I’m telling you is that we’re an immigrant family and we had nothing. We got in with nothing. Canada opened up its doors, and if they wouldn’t have done what they did, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I have, and I wouldn’t have been able to give them to my daughter. And that’s it. So, it means a lot.”

His daughter is a bright light in a world that seems very dark at times, not to mention a beacon of hope and inspiration for countless others.

Not to be outdone is her final opponent at Flushing Meadows, whose achievements are just as incredible and improbable. Only 18, Emma Raducanu was born in Toronto to a father, Ian, who immigrated to Canada from Romania and a mother, Renee, who came with her own family from China. They moved to England when Emma was just two, which is why she competes under the flag of the United Kingdom.

Still, this is the first-ever matchup in Grand Slam history involving two players born in the Great White North. Raducanu is also the first player to get this far as a qualifier, which means she wasn’t guaranteed an entry in New York and had to scratch and claw her way in due to her lowly world ranking of 150. She’s the youngest major finalist since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17.

The combined age of Fernandez and Raducanu — 37 — is two years younger than the great Serena Williams. And you realize just how much youth has been served when you consider neither player was even alive when the Twin Towers came down two decades ago. This is the first major final involving two teenagers since 1999, when Williams downed Martina Hingis.

Seth Wenig / The Associated Press Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, reacts after defeating Aryna Sabalenka,of Belarus, during the semifinals of the US Open tennis championships, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in New York.

Given how far they’ve come — both figuratively and literally — it’s easy to root for both athletes and their families. Talk about two shining example of resiliency, hard work, dedication and fighting against the odds.

If their stories seem vaguely familiar, that’s because they are. Ontario’s Bianca Andreescu captured the U.S. Open in 2019 at the age of 19, defeating 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams. In the process, she put herself, and Canada’s rapidly-improving tennis program, on the international map, becoming the first-ever homegrown player to win such a prestigous event

Her parents, Nicu and Maria, immigrated from Romania in 1994, arriving with just the clothes on their back and a pair suitcases. Nicu, an engineer, and Maria, an executive at an investment firm, carved out successful careers for themselves, while giving Andreescu the chance to pursue her obvious tennis talents by enrolling her at the Ontario Racquet Club, then joining the national training program in Toronto at the age of 11.

The rest, as they say, is history. Andreescu remains an athletic force, and the seventh-ranked women’s player in the world just missed reaching the U.S. Open semi-finals herself earlier this week. Now, two more made-in-Canada athletes with compelling backgrounds have announced their arrivals on the biggest stage.

And that, folks, is a truly beautiful thing. For sports. And for life.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Emma Raducanu, of Great Britain, serves to Maria Sakkari, of Greece, during the semifinals of the US Open tennis championships, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

 

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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