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Lou Marsh Trophy contenders: Canadian Leylah Fernandez rose to the occasion at the U.S. Open

Canadians have been lucky in recent years, dazzled by some of their countrymen and women on the tennis court.

Mississauga’s Bianca Andreescu was the headliner in 2019, with wins at Indian Wells, the Rogers Cup and the U.S. Open ultimately landing her the Lou Marsh Trophy. Toronto’s Denis Shapovalov and Montreal’s Félix Auger-Aliassime have also taken turns in the spotlight.

This year, it was Leylah Fernandez’s time to shine. The now-19-year-old’s trip to the U.S. Open final has put her in the running to become the second female tennis player in three years to claim the title of Canada’s best athlete.

The Lou Marsh vote by a committee of Canadian sports media members will be held on Dec. 8.

Fernandez showed few signs of a breakout in the months before her runner-up finish at Flushing Meadows. The Montrealer collected her first WTA tournament title in March — beating Viktorija Golubic 6-1, 6-4 in the Monterrey Open final — but didn’t get past the second round in 11 other events in singles. She did reach the third round in doubles at the Australian and French opens.

She was flying under the radar at the U.S. Open to say the least.

“None of us had Leylah Fernandez as our pick, none of us,” Pam Shriver, an analyst for ESPN at the Grand Slam tournament and former world No. 3, told The Canadian Press in September as the Canadian left one opponent after another in the dust.

In consecutive fashion, Fernandez defeated three top-five players and then two-time Open champion Naomi Osaka for her first major final berth. That was a victory in itself for a teenager who for years had been told she was too small and didn’t have enough power to beat the best.

Despite losing the final in straight sets — 6-4, 6-3 to Britain’s Emma Raducanu — Fernandez emerged as the picture of poise and grit, with pace and a left-handed serve that gave opponents fits. With one upset after another, Fernandez also emerged as a crowd favourite.

Her off-court charm was another factor, including a poignant tribute to the city of New York follow the final — which was played on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I just want to say that I hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the past 20 years,” she said from court level that day.

Fernandez likely won’t be the only tennis player mentioned in the Lou Marsh discussion.

Auger-Aliassime, now 21, is coming off a career year in which he reached the U.S. Open semifinals — losing to eventual champion Daniil Medvedev — and climbed as high as 10th in the ATP rankings. He’s currently No. 11.

Fernandez’s ranking is a career-best 24th. She started the year ranked 88th.

“I’ve improved a lot, not only tennis-wise but emotionally and mentally,” Fernandez said after the U.S. Open. “I’m happy. Next year, hopefully it will be just as good.”

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