It was no mean feat to come up with a tennis story that could compete with the first serious bid for a men’s singles Grand Slam in 52 years.
But the women have somehow managed it in this mad and marvelous edition of the U.S. Open, or to be more precise, the teenagers have managed it.
After knocking off their elders one by one by one, Emma Raducanu, 18, of Britain and Leylah Fernandez, 19, of Canada will now play in Saturday’s singles final.
“I find it fascinating that literally the only way for the women’s draw to capture some focus away from Novak Djokovic chasing the most historic feat in tennis, the calendar-year Grand Slam, was to come up with something like a fairy tale,” said Pam Shriver, once a surprise U.S. Open finalist herself at age 16. “With all due respect, it couldn’t have been the No. 2 player and No. 10 player facing off, but this story is almost like the perfect complement to Djokovic going for history.”
This will be the first all-teenage Grand Slam final since Serena Williams defeated Martina Hingis in 1999 at Flushing Meadows to win the first of her 23 major singles titles.
It seems fitting, with Williams missing this tournament with a leg injury and soon to turn 40, that two young players have come along to generate a similar buzz of discovery.
But this is not quite the same teenage scene. Williams and Hingis were already stars in 1999. Hingis was ranked No. 1 and seeded No. 1. Williams was seeded No. 7 and had been making headlines and waves with her older sister Venus for years.
Fernandez and Raducanu were familiar only to tennis cognoscenti before arriving in New York. Fernandez is unseeded and ranked 73rd. Raducanu is ranked 150th, which meant that she had to make it through qualifying just to reach the main draw. Though she turned heads, particularly in Britain, by reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in her Grand Slam singles debut this year, she seemed overwhelmed by the moment and the physical challenge and was unable to finish that fourth-round match against Ajla Tomljanovic because she had trouble breathing.
But instead of that frightening experience holding her back, she has rebounded beautifully and has yet to drop a set in New York: not in three qualifying matches or her six main-draw matches against vastly more experienced players, including the new Olympic champion Belinda Bencic.
Raducanu is now the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam singles final, going one round further than the likes of John McEnroe.
Before Wimbledon, Raducanu was only the 10th ranked player in her own country, but she will be British No. 1 on Monday and potentially the first British woman to win a major singles title since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977.
Wade was watching inside Arthur Ashe Stadium late Thursday night as Raducanu fought off seven break points in her opening two service games and then stepped on the accelerator to defeat the No. 17 seed, Maria Sakkari, 6-1, 6-4.
When Raducanu finished off her latest upset with an expertly timed forehand swing volley, she dropped her racket and put both hands on top of her head, a faraway look in her eyes.
She was asked later how she would describe what she had accomplished so far.
“A surprise,” she said. “Yeah, honestly I just can’t believe it. A shock. Crazy. All of the above. But it means a lot to be here in this situation. I wanted obviously to, like, be playing Grand Slams, but I didn’t know how soon that would be. To be in a Grand Slam final at this stage of my career, I have no words.”
Not long before, Fernandez was asked to describe what she had accomplished so far after her much more suspenseful semifinal victory over the No. 2 seed, Aryna Sabalenka.
“I’m just having fun,” she said. “I’m trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy. I’m glad that whatever I’m doing on court, the fans are loving it, and I’m loving it too. We’ll say it’s magical.”
The word applies to both players’ runs to the final, but their paths to this rarefied moment have been both remarkably similar and remarkably different. Both were born in Canada, but though Raducanu still holds a Canadian passport, she left with her parents to live in London when she was 2. Both also grew up in multicultural households. Raducanu’s father is Romanian; her mother is Chinese. Fernandez’s father, Jorge, also her coach, was born in Ecuador before immigrating to Canada at age 4 with his parents, and Fernandez’s mother was born in Canada to parents who immigrated from the Philippines.
But Fernandez’s family has had significant financial challenges and hardships, with her mother leaving Canada to work in California for several years during Fernandez’s youth to better support the family.
“Those few years have been definitely hard for me, because I needed a mom,” Fernandez said. “I needed someone to be there for me through the age of 10 to 13. I’ve barely seen her at that time. Every time I saw her, it was like seeing a stranger but at the same time someone so familiar.”
Though Tennis Canada has provided some support for Fernandez’s tennis, money has often been tight, her father said.
Fernandez said she also had faced many doubts in her early career about her potential. She remembered a teacher in Canada telling her to stop playing tennis and just focus on her studies because she would “never make it.”
“Now I’m laughing,” she said. “I’m just glad that she told me that because every day I have that phrase in my head saying that I’m going to keep going. I’m going to push through, and I’m going to prove to her everything that I’ve dreamed of, I’m going to achieve.”
She is off to a fine start in New York after a summer of underwhelming results and after never advancing past the third round in her first six Grand Slam tournaments.
Raducanu, whose parents work in finance, does not appear to be fueled by a desire to quiet the skeptics and, unlike Fernandez, she was not firmly set on being a professional tennis player until recently.
“Maybe two years ago,” she said. “I always had my education as a backup. I was doing it alongside my tennis. I had options. I still do, but obviously I’m a hundred percent in my tennis now.”
Raducanu and Fernandez met as juniors, and Raducanu said they connected over their Canadian roots. But until now their most significant previous match was in the second round of the Wimbledon junior tournament in 2018.
They will meet again on Saturday with rather more at stake in the first U.S. Open women’s final between unseeded players.
Picking a winner looks like a fool’s errand in light of both players’ inexperience at this level. Raducanu has been the more dominant force, dispatching opponents with powerful precision, and is tied for second in the tournament in the percentage of return games won and percentage of service games won. Fernandez has had to scrap, hustle and believe through four straight three setters. But Fernandez also has had a tougher draw: defeating two former No. 1 players in Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, the former WTA Finals champ Elina Svitolina and the imposing Sabalenka.
Fernandez’s ability to beat that many quality players in taut, tight matches is a tribute to her resolve, adaptability and talent. She is a left-hander, and her serve, particularly her first serve, has been very effective. She has been selectively and effectively bold, hitting more return winners (22) than any player in this Open. Sabalenka overwhelmed her early on Thursday but Fernandez then adjusted to the pace and reeled her in, exchanging low baseline bolts at times and abruptly changing pace with drop shots at others.
As tempting as it is to consider this the arrival of two new top-tier players, the recent history of women’s tennis argues for more restraint. The game has been producing new contenders at a rapid clip. Since the start of 2015, there will have been 13 first-time Grand Slam singles champions, with Raducanu or Fernandez set to be the 14th. Some of those champions have established themselves as No. 1 players, like Osaka and Ashleigh Barty. But others have fallen back like Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko.
“On the women’s side in recent times we just don’t know what will happen after they have this success,” Shriver said. “For this particular tournament, it’s incredible, but for it to pay dividends in the long run, we need to see them in the quarters, semis and finals. It would be great, but we have got to be patient because of the way things could be derailed for one or both after this because of the way it changes a teenager’s life. I certainly understand that, but for now, let’s just enjoy it.”
That sounds like the right approach. The teenagers’ joy has been a delight to behold as they have taken turns illuminating this U.S. Open and transforming it into perhaps the most surprising women’s Grand Slam tournament of the Open era.
Riding back from Queens to Manhattan well after midnight on Friday, the bus passed by a huge U.S. Open billboard of Serena Williams featuring the words “The Return of Amazing.”
Even without Williams at Flushing Meadows this year, the words have still rung true.
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