NEW YORK (Reuters) – After the COVID-19 pandemic left the stands empty last year, the U.S. Open has welcomed tennis-starved fans back to Flushing Meadows and Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez has ridden a wave of support all the way to the semi-finals.

Harnessing the energy generated by New York’s raucous fans, Fernandez has knocked out a string of big names, including former champions Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber.

On Tuesday it was fifth seed Elina Svitolina’s turn to be sent packing by the 19-year-old’s racquet, Fernandez winning a quarter-final nail biter 6-3 3-6 7-6(5) on the sport’s biggest stage, Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“Thanks to you guys, to the crowd, to the New York crowd, cheering me on, fighting for me and never giving up for me,” she said. “Thanks to you, I was able to push through today.”

After a year without spectators, players have said crowds have seemed louder and more engaged.

While at Wimbledon you can hear a pin drop on centre court, a constant buzz provides the background soundtrack on Arthur Ashe and the crowd is never shy about expressing their feelings.

For Fernandez, tapping into the crowd is something she says she has worked hard at, yet it seems so instinctive.

The 19-year-old’s natural enthusiasm combined with a fearlessness and attacking style have made her a Flushing Meadows darling.

Her fan club continues to grow, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NBA-great Magic Johnson congratulating and praising her on social media.

“Over the years I’ve been learning how to use the crowd’s energy, how to use it to my advantage even though they’re cheering against me, to use it,” said Fernandez.

“From a very young age I think it’s something from inside of me because from a very young age I’ve always wanted to be on the first court playing in front of parents.

“Even though they’re not watching, I wanted to be in the first court.

“Even in school, apart from presentations in front of the class that I hated, but when I had to … do a mini play, sing, dance, I would go out there, have fun.”

Fernandez has masterfully worked the crowd in each of her matches, asking for their support, windmilling her arms and urging them to cheer when she feel she has given them something cheer about.

A clenched fist thrust into the air after a winning point has quickly become her trademark.

And Fernandez will likely need the crowd on her side more than ever on Thursday when she meets second seed Aryna Sabalenka for a spot in the final.

“Coming to New York one of my goals was to come out of my shell and be more outgoing and I have been improving every day and it shows on court,” said Fernandez.

“I was very sad there was no crowd last year.”

(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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