We adapt quickly. It’s part of the human spirit, whether we’re teenage tennis stars or the people lining up and taking their seats to watch them in the world’s largest tennis stadium.
Two weeks ago, the vast majority of us had never heard of Leyla fernandez Where Emma Raducanu. Fernandez had never made it past the third round of a major tournament and had struggled to find his best form in recent weeks. Raducanu only joined the tour for good this summer and had to qualify for the off-Broadway qualifying tournament to secure a spot in the US Open.
But on Saturday, when Fernandez, 19, and Raducanu, 18, hit the pitch for one of the most unlikely Grand Slam finals, we already had a connection.
They had boldly worked on the women’s draw during this special US Open, which was full of communion between the players and the public after all the latter’s distancing a year and a half.
Saturday, those who followed the finalists’ unexpected progress already knew their strengths, multicultural origins and even their quirks: Fernandez’s jig behind the baseline before stepping forward to serve, Raducanu’s habit of blowing his fingers between points as if to cool a very hot hand.
But what was most striking on Saturday was how quickly the two unranked players adjusted to the big occasion, calmly giving thoughtful pre-game TV interviews, passing the Billie Jean King quote. on the tunnel wall, which says “pressure is a privilege,” then walking past King herself as they emerged in the late afternoon sun for the biggest opportunity of their short career.
It was brand new, but you wouldn’t have known it once the ball was in play as both attacked their groundstrokes and did their best to seize the opportunity even after spending almost two full days. to think about the occasion. once they’ve won their semi-finals.
After the introductions, Fernandez tore up a cross backhand winner on the opening point. Raducanu then beat a backhand winner to retain serve and win the opener.
Grand Slam finals, even with more experienced players, can become one-way traffic too quickly. Tennis is a dynamic game, and the best-of-three format used by women leaves less time to turn things around than the best-of-five format used by men.
But Raducanu and Fernandez both held their own, extending trades with their speed and defensive skills on the move, cleverly sending lobs high into the atmosphere when stuck. But equally impressive, they finished the points with authority when they created the space for the winners.
Their styles contrast in some ways. Southpaw Fernandez uses more spin and likes to deploy the drop shot. Her technique is more artisanal than a manual, with her hands often far apart on the grip of a two-handed backhand as she improvises on the fly. Right-hander Raducanu favors more direct power and has fabulous fundamentals that allow her to control the ball even while swaying fiercely. She has a knack for making the shot tricky and an ability to sidestep her backhand in a flash and tear up a backhand forehand Roger Federer might relate to.
But Fernandez and Raducanu are very contemporary tennis talents in their ability to maintain rhythm and consistency from low body positions, with their knees often touching the court as they cross-cut.
Some of their extended trades on Saturday were spectacular as they traded backhand shots with a simple grunt, their sneakers squeaking on the hard as they each focused on their goal of becoming a US Open champion.
Only Raducanu would get this great satisfaction, and although the score of 6-4, 6-3 will seem quite lopsided in the history books, anyone who has watched will know that the game was much more tenuous than that.
“These two young women are a gift for tennis, an absolute gift,” Andy Roddick, 2003 US Open men’s champion, wrote in a post on Twitter.
Raducanu will not lack attention at home and abroad for its breakthrough. An excellent student in class, she is also clearly a very quick study on a tennis court. But women’s tennis is a wide open world these days: fourteen players have won their first Grand Slam singles titles since 2015.
More big trophies are no guarantee no matter how phenomenal Raducanu’s run in New York has been. But she seems wise beyond her years and not quite her generation: “I still haven’t checked my phone,” she said on Saturday night.
Wealth, unlike trophies, surely awaits. Raducanu is originally from Britain, a major market, and is telegenic with global appeal as a well-spoken daughter of parents with roots in Romania and China. Additionally, her agent is Max Eisenbud, who helped turn Maria Sharapova’s unexpected win at Wimbledon at age 17 into gold and now has an even more unlikely achievement to work with.
Raducanu finished her high school exams shortly before Wimbledon, where she reached the fourth round on her Grand Slam debut and tasted “Emmamania” only to struggle with her breathing and nerves and withdrawing mid-game. against Ajla Tomljanovic.
I asked Raducanu if she viewed her ability to bounce back so quickly from that setback as a triumph. “I think the biggest triumph for me is how I managed to think of absolutely nothing other than my game plan,” she said. “I completely zoned and focused on my job.”
Roddick was right to spotlight both players on Saturday. Fernandez isn’t a Grand Slam champion yet, but she’s a world-class fighter who walks between the points with the unwavering determination of someone about to break up a bar fight.
She and her family sacrificed a lot for her tennis career, and after losing a first-home set, Fernandez still had every reason to believe in his chances – given all of his successful battles with Flushing Meadows’ top players. . She upset three top five ranked players – Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka – as well as Angélique Kerber, a former No. 1 in great shape.
Fernandez had beaten them all in straight sets, so when Raducanu took a 5-2 lead in the second set but couldn’t convert her first two match points on Fernandez’s serve, Fernandez smiled as if she knew. something that no one else suspected yet.
Why wouldn’t she have believed in another comeback? But when she got a breaking point in the next match, she had to wait to play it as Raducanu, who had grazed his left knee while sliding for a shot, took a time out to clean up the blood that flowed and heal the wound.
The stop was well within the rules, but in the ebb and flow sport of this thinker, it might have made a difference. Raducanu said she was also worried about losing her rhythm. But it was Fernandez who expressed dissatisfaction with the long break to officials, then pushed a long forehand. Raducanu then saved a second break point with a leaping shot from a header.
She was back together with the hustle and bustle of Arthur Ashe Stadium and probably most of Britain awakened as the game was broadcast in prime time in Raducanu’s home country.
This time, she didn’t flinch, surprising Fernandez with a nice serve on the T which gave her command of the rally and earned her a third match point.
She pondered her options, threw the ball high and hit an ace to become the first qualifier in tennis history to win a Grand Slam singles title. In 10 matches, she has never lost a set.
“I never thought I would see him, so I’m in shock,” said King, who watched from the stands as Raducanu dropped his racket and fell onto the pitch, his hands covering his face. .
It was a moment of transformation, which left both players in tears. But what seemed remarkable at the end of the match was the same thing that had seemed remarkable at the start: the balance and adaptability of the two young finalists.
And when Fernandez, her eyes still red, seemed to have answered her last question at the awards show, she had the presence of mind of ask for the microphone again and say what she had planned for this bittersweet Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
“I know that day was particularly difficult for New York and everyone around us,” she said. “I just hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been for the past 20 years.”
David Waldstein contributed reports.