Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez usher in dynamic new era
Over the past 20 years, as memories of Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Serena Williams battling for glory in grand slam finals as teens faded deep into the memory of professional tennis, it soon became clear that the era of teenage supernovas had abated.
While there have been numerous anomalies since, including the recent triumphs of Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek, with the rise of technology and augmenting physicality within the sport teenagers have been brushed aside.
Not this time. After one of the most manic grand slam tournaments in recent years, the last players standing in the women’s draw are two youngsters, 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez and 18-year-old Emma Raducanu, who had the audacity to ignore convention and believe that they could win each match ahead. With every round they have passed and each career-best victory achieved, they took it. On Saturday, they will be the first pair of teens to face each other in a grand slam final since Serena Williams and Hingis at the US Open in 1999.
With only two months separating them in age, the history they share is unsurprisingly vast. They first met each other at the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament when they were competing in the under 12s edition: “We first encountered each other because I was born in Toronto and she was Canadian, so we kind of, like, made a little relationship back then,” said Raducanu. Three years later, as 15-year-olds, they faced each other in the second round of junior Wimbledon, a match Raducanu won in straight sets.
After completing their junior careers, however, they went their separate ways and their journeys to this final could scarcely differ more. Fernandez has trodden a more conventional path to her first grand slam final. After a sparkling junior career that included a triumph at the French Open junior event in 2019, her transition to the main tour has been smooth. She achieved an early big win, defeating Belinda Bencic in Fed Cup, then she spent around a year building her ranking at lower level tournaments.
Shortly after returning from the pandemic break, Fernandez reached the top 100 and earlier this year, she won her first ever WTA title in Monterrey and although she had entered the US Open in indifferent form, with every match over the past 18 months she has gained more experience and understanding of the level necessary to succeed on the tour.
Since she has arrived at the US Open, she has wrestled through one of the most complicated draws possible. Even her first two rounds against unseeded players, returning former top 20 player Ana Konjuh and six-time grand slam quarter finalist Kaia Kanepi were difficult.
Since then, she has defeated a long list of names in thrilling three-setters: Naomi Osaka, the third seed, 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4. Angelique Kerber, the in-form three-time grand slam champion, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2. Elina Svitolina, the fifth seed, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) and then Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (3) 4-6 6-4. She has been astonishingly clutch in the important moments, winning all five tiebreaks contested in the tournament, while beating three top five players in total. She has fought tooth and nail and at times played at a sublime level.
While Fernandez has tested herself across 34 top level events, Raducanu is still in her fourth. Given her sheer inexperience at all levels of the professional game, her presence in the final is without precedence. The manner that she has learnt each day and implemented improvements with every new round has been a great measure of her intelligence.
While Raducanu has not faced the same calibre of opponents, she has left no doubt about her level by destroying everything in her path. The 18-year-old has not lost a single set including in the qualifying draw and she has conceded only 27 games. In total, Fernandez has spent 12 hours and 45 minutes on the court in her six matches at the US Open. Despite contesting three additional qualifying matches, Raducanu has spent over an hour less time on court. There are similarities and differences in their games: At their best, as has been the case for much of the past two weeks, both possess few weaknesses to be exploited. Despite standing at 5ft 6in and sometimes seeming even smaller, Fernandez’s timing and wicked left arm combine to generate great pace and weight with her spectacular forehand. She has otherwise smothered opponents in big moments with total tennis, combining that explosiveness with angles, touch, guile and high level returning.
While Raducanu’s variety is still a work in progress, she similarly has a well-rounded game and both navigate the court with an innate understanding of their own strengths and how to use them. This will be historic for another reason as both Fernandez and Raducanu are from immigrant families. While Fernandez’s parents hail from Ecuador and the Philippines, Raducanu’s background is Romanian and Chinese.
As she basked in the glow of her semi-final win, Fernandez summed up the joy of reaching her maiden final after being asked how she would describe her fortnight. “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.”