NEW YORK — When Leylah Annie Fernandez moved with her family to an apartment in Boynton Beach, Florida, as she prepared to go out on the pro tour, her former coach Dave Rineberg would always ask: “How are you going to beat the big girls?”
By that point, Fernandez already had established herself as one of the top juniors in the world, getting to the finals of the Australian Open and winning the French Open. But those tournaments, prestigious as they are, are not great predictors of who will have success at the next level. When those top juniors make the transition to the real tour, it often is a rude awakening.
“We were always talking about, ‘How are you going to beat Kaia? How are you going to beat Kaia?’ ” Rineberg said, referring to Kaia Kanepi, a player he previously worked with who spent several years in the top 40 in the world. “You’ve got to hit the angles to beat the big girls, drive it down the line on change of directions.”
As Rineberg watched the 19-year-old Fernandez notch her third massive upset of the U.S. Open on Tuesday, knocking out world No. 5 Elina Svitolina 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 to reach an improbable Grand Slam semifinal, all of that came to life.
For any player making a run like Fernandez, who came into the U.S. Open ranked 73rd and has suddenly knocked off three so-called “big girls” — No. 3 Naomi Osaka, No. 17 Angelique Kerber and now Svitolina — there’s always an element of unexplainable, perhaps even magical confidence in their ability to execute under pressure in ways they never have before. But the foundation of that confidence is not magic. It’s just tennis.
“She’s taking the ball as early as I’ve ever seen, changing directions with it, her angles are really disruptive,” Rineberg said. “ … she has the confidence everything is going to go in. She’s swinging so free right now, it looks beautiful. I’m rooting for her. She’s a great kid.”
Rineberg’s time with Fernandez ultimately didn’t last long, and as often happens in these situations, there was discord between the coach and her father Jorge, an Ecuadorian immigrant who coached Fernandez up the junior ranks and still does today despite not having a background in tennis.
But when it was time for Leylah to turn pro, Tennis Canada hired Rineberg to help them make the transition, something he had done with numerous young players including Serena Williams and Jessica Pegula.
Over the years, Rineberg has seen plenty of families bet everything on young girls with promise in tennis, often with disastrous results. For every story like the Williams sisters or Osaka, there are dozens and dozens who never make it for one reason or another.
“They were just scraping by, and it takes money to move in this sport, to move around, get where you need to go,” Rineberg said. “I’ve seen so many fathers bank on it and give up everything, quit their jobs, and I’ve had to talk to many of them and say, ‘Take the college scholarship’ and you can’t convince them. Stories like these are rare.”
Fernandez, a petite 5-foot-6, was never going to be one of those so-called “big girls.” But she loved chasing down balls and had an incredible disposition on the court, which was enough to get her on her way.
Still, nothing in Fernandez’s career has suggested she was on the verge of a run like this at the U.S. Open. Talented? Sure. But the results have been undeniably spotty. Just this year, she’s had seven losses to players ranked outside the top 80. In March, she won her first WTA title, in Monterrey, Mexico, beating some solid competition in Sara Sorribes Tormo and Viktorija Golubic in the semifinals and final.
But since then, she lost in the first or second round of her next 11 tournaments.
“I was training well, playing well. Just a few bad matches here and there,” Fernandez said. “I always went back to work. Went back home to work harder, try to improve my game. I was glad that every match that I played I was improving little by little.”
To beat Osaka, Kerber and Svitolina in succession, however — a group that’s won a combined seven Grand Slams and two WTA Championship finals — Fernandez has had to improve by a lot in a short amount of time.
Rineberg compared it to the way another Canadian, Eugenie Bouchard, played when she came out of nowhere in 2014 and had several huge results, including the Wimbledon final. He said it also reminds him of 17-year-old Serena Williams beating No. 1 Martina Hingis in the 1999 U.S. Open final at a time when she was nowhere close to the player she would become.
“She’s kind of got that same aura going right now,” Rineberg said. “Serena didn’t know what she was doing, she was just swinging away and chasing balls and it looks like every ball that comes over the net right now, Leylah can hit it however she wants and it’s going to go in. Serena back then, she didn’t have the size to blow people off the court, and she did it all with speed and taking the ball early.”
Because of her frame, Fernandez almost certainly isn’t going to evolve on the same trajectory. She’s going to need to continue to play this way, a style predicated on hitting it before the opponent has time to read and react to where it’s going to go. When executed with supreme confidence, it can lead to a run like Fernandez has been on in New York. When there’s hesitation or distrust in a shot, it can produce a lot of errors, which might mean Fernandez is destined to be a high-variance player.
“When you’re taking it that early the big girls have trouble chasing those angles and that’s what Layla’s doing. That’s her style and game that’s really working for her right now,” Rineberg said. “I hope she can continue to hold the emotions in for two more matches. She’s swinging free right now.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Leylah Fernandez became giant-killer at US Open