A Teen Dream US Open Final No One Could Have Expected

Leylah Fernandez (photo: Darren Carroll/USTA)

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, September 10, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As both Leylah Fernandez of Canada and Great Britain’s Emma Raducanu arrived at the semifinal round of the US Open Thursday evening at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the sport’s biggest stage – the furthest either teen has gone in major – their happiness has been palpable if not infectious.

Who could have imagined that at the beginning of this year’s New York fortnight, when the 5-foot-6-inch Fernandez beat Croatian qualifier Anna Konju in straight sets on Court 14 in front of a few hundred fans on Opening Day, or the next afternoon on Court 17, when Raducanu made easy work of Swiss lucky loser Stefanie Voegele, that it would be the beginning of side-by-side stunning runs going all the way to the final.

After all, Fernandez had upset three seeded players – all in three-set battles – while the 5-foot-9-inch Raducanu merely had not conceded a set to any of her opponents en route to becoming the first qualifier – male or female – to reach the US Open semifinals in the Open Era.

Fernandez said during one of her press conferences: “We’re all just super hungry to make a difference in the tennis world. We want to make an impact in tennis. This tournament just proves how well we’re adapting to everything.”

In a US Open in which some of the biggest tennis stars known to this generation – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena and Venus Williams – were absent, it’s been refreshing to see the just-turned 19-year-old Fernandez and 18-year-old Raducanu win over fans, new and old alike, with their poise and enthusiasm and positive outlook. They’ve exhibited solid if not reliable skills on the court and both have been excellent problem solvers.

“The calmness and the mental strength definitely come from my upbringing,” Raducanu said after her 6-3, 6-4 quarterfinal win over No. 11 seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland on Wednesday. “My parents (her father is Romanian while her mother is Chinese) have both instilled in me from a very young age to definitely have a positive attitude on the court. When I was younger, it was definitely an absolute no-go if I had any sort of bad attitude.”

Fernandez, who defeated No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), in the quarterfinals after knocking off defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka and 2016 US Open champion Angelique Kerber in the earlier rounds, took the court first against No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, the highest-remaining seed following the third-round exit by top seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia.

The 23-year-old, big-serving Belarusian arrived with 10 WTA tour-level titles and since the start of the year had climbed to No. 2 in the world rankings. She was appearing in her second straight major semifinal after reaching the last four at Wimbledon in July. While Sabalenka seemed worthy of playing in a major final, Fernandez had other ideas.

“I’ve imagined myself playing on every tournament, every Grand Slam, at the biggest stage,” Fernandez said after beating Svitolina on Tuesday. “I’ve always seen myself being in a big Stadium in front of so many people and just having fun on the court.”

As it happened, the World No. 73 had fun and kept her incredible streak of beating Top Five opponents alive as she beat Sabalenka, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4, in two hours and 21 minutes. Her mental toughness and can-do spirit lifted her into her first major final in just her seventh major appearance.

Simply put, Fernandez was the steadier player when it mattered most, the one who kept her cool and was grace under pressure. She never gave up against Sabalenka, never gave in. Fernandez was fearless. The enthusiastic crowd that filled Arthur Ashe Stadium showered Fernandez with plenty of applause throughout the match – encouraging her from start to finish – and gave her a standing ovation at its conclusion.

As the Fernandez-Sabalenka semifinal unfolded, it turned out to the clash everyone expected, headlined by Sabalenka’s firepower and the tenacity of Fernandez, who overcame 0-3 and 1-4 deficits – and saved a set point – to win the 53-minute first set in a tie break 7-3. Sabalenka saved some of her worst hitting errors for the tie break and it was the second one she’s lost in the tournament while Fernandez improved to a perfect 5-0.

Then, down a set and 2-3, Sabalenka crushed a racquet out of frustration and started to get fired up in between points while also trying to corral the crowd in her favor. She won the 43-minute second set 6-4 after breaking Fernandez in the ninth game. It would be on to a decider.

It was in the final set, which lasted 45 minutes, that Fernandez saved the best for last. She combined some super shotmaking along with taking advantage of Sabalenka’s final-game implosion, which included back-to-back double faults to set up triple match point. Fernandez won on her first match point when Sabalenka sent one final return long. Almost immediately, Fernandez collapsed to the court feeling a sense of joy, relief and accomplishment.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Fernandez explained during her press conference. “A swarm of emotions just came in. I think I was relieved that the ball was out, glad that I fought so hard for two-plus hours, and that all the hard work is paying off and I’m in the finals.”

To the end, it was Fernandez and not Sabalenka who kept her eye on the prize – a first trip to play for a Grand Slam title.

Although Sabalenka finished with more winners than Fernandez, 45-26, she also committed more than twice as many unforced errors, 52-23. Fernandez converted four of seven break points while saving seven of 11 that she faced. She outpointed Sabalenka 99-97.

“I had a lot of opportunities and I didn’t use it,” Sabalenka said during her press conference. “Yeah, in a couple of I would say key moments, my serve didn’t work well. Yeah, I’m really disappointed with that.

“But it is how it is. She play well. I think it was a great match. She deserve this win.”

Looking back, it’s been a truly remarkable run for the Montreal-born Fernandez, whose father was born in Ecuador and mother is Filipino Canadian. After all, she had never been past the third round in any major until now – and there’s still one more match to complete the journey. Fernandez is just the second Canadian woman – joining 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu – to reach the US Open final and is only the fourth woman ranked outside the Top 50 to reach the US Open title match.

“That’s years and years and years of hard work, and tears and blood, everything, on-court, off-court sacrifices,” Fernandez told ESPN‘s Pam Shriver during her on-court interview after her victory. “I just wanted to be in the final. I really wanted it. I fought for every point. Aryna fought for the same thing. I don’t know how I got that last point, but I’m glad I did.”

Raducanu makes history, from qualifier to Grand Slam finalist

Meanwhile, in the second semifinal, which matched the 150th-ranked Raducanu against No. 17 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, the British teenager was attempting to become the first qualifier – man or woman – to reach a Grand Slam final. And she did it.

Raducanu beat Sakkari, 6-1, 6-4, in an hour and 24 minutes to set up an all-teen US Open final on Saturday afternoon, just the eighth Grand Slam final in the Open Era between teenagers and the first since the 1999 US Open final won by Serena Williams over Martina Hingis. Raducanu became the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Leylah Fernandez earlier in the evening, who had broken the mark set by Maria Sharapova in 2004.

Appearing in just her second major and making her US Open debut, Raducanu extended her streak of not losing a single set through six straight matches. She has lost just 27 total games. Now, after beating Bencic and Sakkari, she has secured back-to-back Top 20 victories for the first time in her budding pro career.

Raducanu won the opening set easily 6-1 in just 36 minutes. She jumped ahead 3-0 by saving seven of seven break points she faced from the 26-year-old Sakkari. She didn’t face another break point on her serve. Everything, it seemed, went in her favor.

After Raducanu broke to go ahead 2-1 in the second set, she was never seriously threatened the remainder of the semifinal match. The Briton hit 16 winners – including a drive volley on match point – to 17 unforced errors and won 72 percent (28 of 39) of her first serves and 69 percent (11 of 16) of her second serves. As for Sakkari, she struggled with her ground strokes, finishing with 17 winners while committing 33 unforced errors and won just 29 percent (16 of 55) of her return points. Raducanu outpointed Sakkari 67-48.

During her post-match interview with ESPN‘s Rennae Stubbs, Raducanu was asked if it had hit her that she had made history in becoming the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final.

“Honestly, the time here in New York has gone so fast,” she replied. “I’m just been taking care of each day, and before you know it, three weeks later I’m in the final. I can’t believe it. Thank you, everyone!”

Asked how she would manage expectations of going forward, from qualifier to finalist – all in her first US Open – Raducanu said: “Is there any expectation? I’m a qualifier, so technically on paper there’s no pressure on me.”

Later, during her press conference, Raducanu said: “I think today was always going to be a very difficult match, to play against Maria Sakkari. She’s an unbelievable player, probably one of the best athletes out there on tour. I knew before the match I was going to have to play some of my best tennis if I wanted a chance.”

Perhaps, Sakkari summed it up best during press in describing what it means for Fernandez and Raducanu to be continuing their journey and playing for the US Open title on Saturday: “They are both young. They play fearless. They have nothing to lose playing against us,” she said.

“I have to give credit to both of them, both of the young girls, that they take their chances. They’re out there fighting for that title. Very well done to both for getting here.”

Men’s doubles final has a very British flavor to it

No. 4 seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain advanced to Friday’s US Open men’s doubles final with a 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory over American wild cards Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey on Louis Armstrong Stadium Thursday afternoon.

The American/British duo controlled much of the one-hour and 20-minute match that was played with the roof closed due to rain. They hit seven aces and 38 winners and made just 11 unforced errors. Johnson and Querrey combined for six aces and 23 winners while committing just 10 unforced errors. Ram and Salisbury converted the only break point in the match, which came in the ninth game of the second set, then served out the win.

After reaching the semifinals in five of their major seven majors, they’re into their third major final as a team. Earlier this season, they also won a Masters 1000 title in Toronto.

“I think we did a good job of keeping it on our side,” Ram said during an on-court interview after the match. “I’m really happy with the way we performed together as a team today.

“We get along great – we have a great team – and it’s pleasure to be a part of it. We have a good time out there and play good tennis now and again.”

Added Salisbury: “We’re happy with our first US Open final.

“Obviously excited to come through. We knew it was gong to be a tough match. Very dangerous team. Both have got big games, so if they play well, then it can kind of take it out of your hands. Just happy how we stayed focused on what we do well.”

Ram and Salisbury will play seventh seeds Jamie Murray of Great Britain and Bruno Soares of Brazil, who advanced over eighth seeds John Peers of Australia and Filip Polasek of Slovakia, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.

Murray and Soares reunited this year after enjoying previous success, winning the 2016 Australian Open and US Open titles. Last year, Soares won the US Open with Mate Pavic of Croatia. This year’s US Open marks Soares’ return to competition after undergoing surgery to remove his appendix following Wimbledon.

“When we play like that, yeah, it feels great,” Murray said during an on-court interview. “Various things went on in our lives, especially for Bruno. This is why we came back together. We wanted to win big tour events. We have a great chance to win. To play in a grand slam final, again, is so exciting.”

The US Open final marks the first time in the Open Era that two Britons will meet in a major men’s doubles title match. In their only previous meeting, Ram and Salisbury beat Murray and Soares in the Australian Open semifinals.

Thursday’s US Open results

Friday’s US Open order of play

By the numbers

Leylah Fernandez is only the fourth Canadian woman in the Open Era to reach the semifinals of a major, following in the footsteps of Carling Bassett-Seguso (1984 US Open), Eugenie Bouchard (2014 Australian Open, 2014 French Open, 2014 Wimbledon), and Bianca Andreescu (2019 US Open). Now, she’s the second Canadian in three years to reach the US Open final, joining Andreescu.

• At age 19, Leylah Fernandez is the youngest player to beat three Top Five players at a Grand Slam event since Serena Williams in 1999 at the US Open.

• With her semifinal victory, Emma Raducanu became the fourth player, joining Pam Shriver (1978), Venus Williams (1997) and  Bianca Andreescu (2019), to have reached the final in her US Open main draw debut. Only Andreescu, who triumphed against Serena Williams for the title, has won the US Open title on her debut.

• On Monday, Great Britain’s Emma Raducanu will end the 310-week reign of Johanna Konta as the No. 1 British woman. Currently ranked 150th, Raducanu has a chance to rise to No. 24 if she captures the title.

“Quotable …”

“I think it’s a lot of teamwork … staying calm and knowing that it wasn’t going to be pretty tennis. And we knew also that every tournament you tend to play better as the tournament goes on. You get matches, rhythm, confidence, you start feeling the ball better.

“That’s what happened. And I knew that, you know, we have played a lot of these tournaments, and we know it’s long, how it feels, you know, and after we won the first two rounds, like I knew we could raise our level. I think that’s what we did.

“But I think also the key is just mentally, being there every single point from the first match, not really, you know, putting our heads down when something wrong happened, because we knew it wasn’t going to be amazing. I think that’s what we did the best, and the level improved a lot throughout the tournament.”

Bruno Soares of Brazil, who with Jamie Murray will play in the US Open men’s doubles final on Friday. Soares is playing his first tournament since undergoing surgery to have his appendix removed earlier this summer after Wimbledon.