NEW YORK — Leylah Fernandez stood on the court as every person sitting in Arthur Ashe Stadium looked on, enraptured by her every word.
The 19-year-old had just won her quarterfinal match at the US Open against No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), and advanced to her first major semifinal. After such a seemingly-improbable run, ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs asked the question that many had been thinking and tweeting throughout the tournament.
“What is it that they’re feeding you up North in Canada that’s producing such incredible, inspiring tennis this week?”
Without missing a beat, Fernandez answered:
“I would say it’s the maple syrup.”
The audience roared in appreciation, and the moment went immediately viral. While Fernandez was obviously joking, it has become abundantly clear that something special is happening with Canadian tennis.
Just hours after Fernandez’s triumph, countryman Felix Auger-Aliassime, 21, followed suit with a win via retirement over Carlos Alcaraz. It marks the first time Canada has two players, male or female, in the semifinal round at the US Open during the Open era and is just the second time at any major. It’s the latest in a string of history-making results for the federation, two years after Bianca Andreescu became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title (at the 2019 US Open).
“A decade ago, there were only about 50,000 kids in Canada playing tennis regularly,” said Michael Downey, CEO of Tennis Canada. “But now our most recent research says there are about 250,000. And we know that’s all credit to our players who have paved the way. The first inspiration was Milos [Raonic] in 2011 at the Aussie Open and afterward, and then Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon in 2014. This motivated the next generation.
“And then you had what Bianca achieved in 2019, and the men reaching the Davis Cup final that year. These are all the waves that inspired kids to pick up a racket. And now we’re in a situation where the country’s getting great results and Leylah and Felix, and Bianca and [world No. 10] Denis Shapovalov, are just feeding off each other and making each other better.”
Canada hasn’t always produced Grand Slam-contending talent. When Downey took over the CEO role at the federation in 2004, there wasn’t a single player, male or female, ranked in the top 100. And that wasn’t a fluke — Downey said it had been seven years since a Canadian player had made it into double digits.
In a country known for its cold weather, it’s an uphill battle to produce top-quality tennis players. Indoor courts are often hard to find, and many players still don’t have consistent access. In the past it was hard to attract promising young athletic talent, especially when competing with the uber-popular hockey.
But things began to change with Raonic’s success. After his run in the Australian Open in 2011, where he went through qualifying and into the round of 16, and his first ATP title at the Pacific Coast Championships soon after, he became the highest-ranking Canadian male player in history at No. 37.
By 2013, he had reached the top 10.
Bouchard captivated the world with her 2014 season, when she reached the semifinals at the Australian Open and the French Open, and then the final at Wimbledon. As she and Raonic both made the final four at the All England Club, it was the first time two Canadians had done so.
Bouchard lost in the Wimbledon final, but she became the first Canadian to crack the top five in the rankings — and her global popularity skyrocketed.
After Fernandez’s win over defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round, she credited Bouchard as an early inspiration. She was an 11-year-old training in Montreal, also Bouchard’s hometown, during Bouchard’s breakthrough and the achievement had a lasting impact.
“It’s not just Leylah, all of these kids — Felix, Bianca and Denis — were all inspired by Genie and Milos,” Downey said. “They both trained at the National Training Centre in Montreal, and then Leylah and Felix were at that same facility, and then they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, they were right here a few years ago, if they can win, I can too.’ I think that created this belief in themselves and their ability to win.
“The bar used to be, ‘How can I make it to the top 100?’ but now that’s just an amber street sign — they’re driving right through it now. In the past decade, I think it’s gone from, ‘I don’t belong’ to ‘I belong and should go deep in tournaments’ to ‘I know I can win.’ It’s a fundamental culture change that you’re seeing.”
There were six Canadians competing in the main draw at the US Open — Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil on the men’s side and Fernandez, Andreescu and Rebecca Marino on the women’s. Raonic and Bouchard are both currently sidelined with injuries. Gaby Dabrowski, 29, is still alive in the doubles competition and will be playing in the semifinals with her partner, Luisa Stefani (of Brazil), looking to clinch her first major doubles title. She has twice won in mixed doubles.
Two matches now stand between Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime and their respective titles, but they both will have their hands full in the semifinals. Fernandez takes on world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday, and Auger-Aliassime plays two-time major finalist Daniil Medvedev on Friday.
Downey hopes no matter what happens, what they’ve accomplished will enthuse the next generation of Canadian players and spark someone else to pick up a racket for the first time. Both with multicultural backgrounds and both the children of immigrants — Fernandez’s father is from Ecuador and Auger-Aliassime’s father is from Togo — he believes Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime represent the “essence of Canada” and subsequently have the power to reach even more of the population.
Instead of being in New York cheering them on, he remains in Toronto and is trying to capitalize on their momentum, advocating for more indoor courts across the country and convincing local municipalities to put temporary bubbles on outdoor courts as the winter months near. Growing the game remains his top priority, he said, but will cross the border for the weekend if one or both advance to the final.
Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime have undoubtedly furthered raised the rapidly growing profile for Tennis Canada during their impressive runs, as well as proven to be part of an exciting group of young players from all over the world expected to dominate the game for years to come. Auger-Aliassime is proud of what he and Fernandez have already achieved but believes it could be even better.
“It’s great for Canada,” Auger-Aliassime said on Tuesday. “It’s great for Quebec. We’re both born in Montreal. I mean, I never thought a day like this would come. Both a little girl and a little boy from Montreal, both at the same time in the semifinals of the US Open. It’s special. It’s special for us. I hope the people back home appreciate the moment also. We do a lot.
“It’s great. But it would be amazing if we were both in a final, right?”