Who saw this coming? Invariably in majors, a string of upsets and Cinderella runs capture some of the narratives. But two unseeded teenagers, Leylah Fernandez, 19, and Emma Raducanu, 18, playing for the US Open final?
"A surprise," Raducanu said after a dominant win in the semifinals. "Yeah, honestly I just can't believe it. A shock. Crazy. All of the above."
That pretty much sums it up.
Raducanu has been dominant these past two weeks. She has failed to drop a set, but ... she has yet to play anyone in the Top 10.
Fernandez has had her hands full since the outset of the Open. Her past four matches have all gone three sets, but those include wins against No.3 Naomi Osaka, three-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber, No.5 Elina Svitolina, and No.2 Aryna Sabalenka.
Not a bad string of upsets. Which brings us to the most pressing question yet: Who has the advantage in what is the first major final, man or woman, featuring unseeded players since the Open Era began in 1968.
Alex Macpherson and Greg Garber make their case for both players.
Coming into this US Open’s 2021 season, Leylah Fernandez had won one more match than she had lost.
And now the Canadian – three days into her 20th year – has beaten three of the WTA’s five top-ranked players. Yes, as difficult as it is to comprehend, Fernandez has beaten No.2 Aryna Sabalenka, No.3 Naomi Osaka and No.5 Elina Svitolina – not to mention three-time major champion Angelique Kerber.
“I’ve never seen anything like this on [Arthur] Ashe [Stadium] – ever,” said 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Chris Evert during the ESPN telecast. “She’s too good to be true.”
The most recent shocker – at this point, are they still upsets? – was a 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 piece of work Thursday over Sabalenka. Fernandez was unnaturally poised throughout and finds herself in Saturday’s major final [4 p.m. ET] opposite 18-year-old Emma Raducanu.
“I think I’ve been doing some things incredible,” Fernandez told reporters afterward. “It’s like I think one word that really stuck to me is `magical’ because not only is my run really good but also the way I’m playing right now. I'm just having fun.”
It’s the first all-teen Grand Slam final since 1999, when 17-year-old Serena Williams defeated 18-year-old Martina Hingis – and the eighth overall. A few hours after Fernandez became the youngest major finalist in 17 years, Raducanu supplanted her.
These two have never played, but …
After all we’ve seen this fortnight, why wouldn’t Fernandez take home the US Open title? Fernandez was down 1-4 to Sabalenka in the first set and 0-2 in the first-set tiebreaker but wasn’t flustered. Her calmness, decision-making and shot execution in this crucible of tension have been impeccable.
Osaka was a four-time major champion. Svitolina had won 16 titles and $20 million in prize money. Sabalenka is the WTA’s leading winner, with 43 match-wins this season and was the only semifinalist to have won a title (Abu Dhabi, Madrid). Where did all of this come from?
“A lot of people doubted me, my family and my dreams,” Fernandez said. “They kept saying no, that I’m not going to be a professional tennis player, that I should stop and just pursue going to school. I remember one teacher, she told me to stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school.
“You know what, 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 them. -- Greg Garber
Two unheralded teenagers, two contrasting runs to the US Open final that have been thrilling and preposterous in equal measure. If Leylah Fernandez has undoubtedly had the tougher path, taking down a succession of big names and heavy hitters in nail-bitingly close encounters, Emma Raducanu's route has been characterised by brutal efficiency.
She has lost 43 games in nine matches over the past three weeks. Only one player has even managed to take five games in one set – Mariam Bolkvadze, in the second round of qualifying. Raducanu has averaged 4.8 games dropped per match – incredibly, a number that has gone down as the tournament has gone on. Only taking the main draw into account, it falls to 4.5 games dropped per match.
The dominant score lines would be impressive enough on their own, but seeing them doled out by a player of Raducanu's inexperience is surreal. The 18-year-old World No.150 is playing her 26th professional tournament and only her seventh following a 16-month hiatus from competition between February 2020 and June 2021. The US Open is just her fourth event at tour level. Thirteen weeks ago, she was ranked No.366. She had never faced a Top 40 player before meeting Belinda Bencic in the quarterfinals. Two rounds later, she's become the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open Era.
RADUCANU BELIEVE IT 🤯— wta (@WTA) September 10, 2021
18-year-old qualifier 🇬🇧 @EmmaRaducanu is through to the #USOpen final without dropping a single set. Throughout the whole tournament. Including qualifying.
She will face Fernandez in an all-teenage final on Saturday 🍿 pic.twitter.com/akQRhvTal8
What on earth is happening here? Superb court sense, tactical intelligence and scoreboard management. Raducanu is able to keep her opponents off balance through mixing and disguising multiple lines of attack. And while her matches are closer than the score lines suggest, Raducanu has a knack for winning the big points. In her three most recent rounds, she has saved 19 out of a combined 21 break points against Shelby Rogers, Bencic and Maria Sakkari.
All of this means that Raducanu has one potentially important edge over Fernandez. Despite playing three more matches than the Canadian, she has spent over an hour less on court. Their shared history also favours Raducanu. Both born in 2002, the pair have been competing at the same tournaments since their U12 days – but Raducanu won their only contest 6-2, 6-4 in the second round of the 2018 Wimbledon junior competition.
And perhaps most importantly, the Briton gives every indication of enjoying the ridiculous, improbable nature of her New York adventure for what it is. Minutes after winning her semifinal over Sakkari, she was asked by Rennae Stubbs in her on-court interview about dealing with expectations. Without missing a beat and seemingly amused by the very idea, Raducanu responded: "Is there expectation? I mean, technically I'm a qualifier, so there's no pressure on me." -- Alex Macpherson