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Totally Rad: 150th-ranked Emma Raducanu won an all-Cinderella US Open final with clear, uncomplicated tennis
With her title, Raducanu became the first qualifier to win a major in the Open Era, and the first British woman to win one in 44 years.
Published Sep 12, 2021
WATCH: Emma Raducanu's road to the US Open title
For 20 years, whenever we’ve talked about tennis players who “make it look easy,” we’ve talked about Roger Federer. Who would have guessed the Maestro’s successor in that regard would be an 18-year-old who is currently ranked 150th in the world, who has played just a handful of WTA tournaments, and who, a little less than a month ago, lost in the fourth round in a tournament in Landisville, Pa., population 2,117?
Emma Raducanu may never be able to match the balletic flow of Federer, but she has a knack for making tennis seem like an exceedingly simple game. You hit hard and deep, and use topspin for margin. You stand close to the baseline and command the court from there. You move the ball from corner to corner. You serve wide and hit your next shot into the open court. You send your returns deep and down the middle. You hit forcing shots, but not risky ones. And when you get to your third championship point at the US Open, and you feel a little tight, you hit an ace and hoist the trophy.
Those might seem like old-fashioned, overly basic lessons, but Raducanu showed how well they can still work over the last three weeks. In New York, she won 10 matches—three in qualifying, seven in the main draw, all in straight sets. Only once did an opponent take her to 7-5 in a set. With her title, Raducanu became the first qualifier to win a major in the Open era, and the first British woman to win one in 44 years.
“A surprise. Yeah, honestly, I just can’t believe it. A shock. Crazy. All of the above,” Raducanu said, while sounding as if she wasn’t particularly shocked by her success at all.
“To come this early, at this point in my career, I’ve only really been on tour for a month, two months since Wimbledon,” she said. “It’s pretty crazy to me.”
This entire US Open has been pretty crazy, especially on the women’s side, and Raducanu wasn’t the only Cinderella story in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday. Her opponent, 19-year-old, 73rd-ranked Leylah Fernandez, was an equally unlikely finalist. The Canadian’s path to the title match was as dramatic as Raducanu’s was straightforward. Fernandez beat three Top 10 players—Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, and Aryna Sabalenka—as well as a former No. 1, Angelique Kerber, all in three sets.
Only one young woman can make the glass slipper fit in a tennis tournament, though, and it wasn’t Fernandez. Maybe it was the moment; maybe it was the fact that she wasn’t the underdog; maybe it was Raducanu’s relentlessness. Whatever the reason, Fernandez wasn’t as sharp as she had been. She double faulted five times, she hit fewer winners than errors, and she couldn’t come up with the killer shot on the big point.
“I unfortunately made one too many mistakes in key moments and she took advantage of it,” Fernandez said.
But “the New York crowd,” as she made sure to call us after every match she won, was with Fernandez all the way. After the final she acknowledged the city’s resilience in the 20 years since 9/11. With her daredevil short-hop game, her obvious love for what she does, and her precocious understanding of how to win over an audience, she’s a star in the making. Now she knows that those two things—the playing and the emoting—go hand in hand.
“There’s one thing that really surprised me was that the more that I’m more outgoing on court and that I try to get the crowd involved, the more I’m playing well,” Fernandez said. “Usually when I was younger, I’d try to be as calm as possible, just like Federer. I’m glad that I’ve discovered that of myself.”
Raducanu and Fernandez may not dominate the sport anytime soon. Fernandez is just 5'6", and Raducanu didn’t beat any Top 10 opponents at the Open. But neither seems like someone who will be wildly inconsistent, either. What matters today is what they did for this tournament, and for tennis, over the last two weeks.
This US Open was the first one in two years with fans, and the first one in 20 years without Federer, Rafael Nadal and Venus and Serena Williams. But instead of feeling like the end of an era, it felt like the start of something brand new—Carlos Alcaraz, Jenson Brooksby and especially Raducanu and Fernandez made sure of that with their fearless and inventive play.
This was an Open about new beginnings, so in a way it made sense that, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, two women who hadn’t been born on the day of that event would face off for the title. Let’s hope Raducanu and Fernandez keep teaching us how to play the game, and enjoy the moment, for many years to come.