Report from Flushing Meadows: The crowd was split in its support

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NEW YORK—The women’s singles tournament at the US Open was in danger of being declared a washout well before the remnants of Hurricane Ida pummeled Gotham and threatened to sweep everything into the storm drains of Queens. Improbably, though, the event ended in dazzling fashion on this sunny Saturday with a pair of bewitching teenagers contesting the final.

Emma Raducanu, just 18 years old and the first qualifier to contest a Grand Slam final, defeated pugnacious Leylah Fernandez, who had booked her place in the final with three-set wins over former Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka.

In the final, Fernandez, who turned 19 just days ago, appeared to run out of gas, but she never ran out of heart. But Raducanu proved just slightly more consistent, and a little more effective with her serve, winning 6-4, 6-3.

The final was much closer than the straight-set score suggests. The excitement surging through the stadium was palpable through the first few games. Casual fans along with jaded veterans of Opens past seemed so torn about which of the two bright youngsters to back that they ended up rooting for both.

The vibe in the stadium was magical, and it brought to mind a comment Fernandez made about her run here a few days ago.

“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. 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.”

The two teens put on a show worthy of the magic they'd made throughout the tournament.

The two teens put on a show worthy of the magic they'd made throughout the tournament.

Was it just two weeks ago that tennis fans were entitled to wonder if the tournament would have any zest at all? They groaned en masse at the news that both Venus and Serena Williams, the latter still on the hunt for Grand Slam No. 24, pulled out with leg injuries. Sofia Kenin was next: the top-ranked American and No. 6 seed was obliged to withdraw when she tested positive for Covid despite having been vaccinated.

Bad turned to worse. Jennifer Brady, next on the US depth chart, also dropped out. Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, the US Open finalists of 2017, were drawn to play each other in the first round. Then top seed Ash Barty and No. 3 Osaka both flamed out in the third round, the latter on the heels of a dramatic display of petulance and professional discontent. Osaka left Flushing Meadows in tears after declaring she was not sure when she would pick up a racquet again.

Nobody expected that Osaka’s loss to Fernandez, a relative unknown who came into the tournament ranked No. 73—and without two successive wins in nearly six months—would become a pivot point in this event.

Fernandez is just 5’6”, but loaded with the kind of spunk that goes a long way in an intensely psychological enterprise like tennis. She turned the tables on her height deficit over six matches with great foot speed, a low center of gravity and a southpaw serve that slices, skids, skips and slip-slides dangerously.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, an even less-likely narrative was taking shape. Raducanu battled her way through three qualifying matches. She didn’t drop a set, nor did she lose one in the six main-draw matches on her way to the final. After dispatching Maria Sakkari in the semifinal, she tried her best to put her feelings into words.

“A surprise,” she said. “Yeah, honestly I just can't believe it. A shock. Crazy. All of the above.”

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Raducanu finished off the final with an ace, but not before one last push from Fernandez.

Raducanu finished off the final with an ace, but not before one last push from Fernandez.

This was the first meeting between these two, which served to further stoke the enthralled crowd. But tennis players of like ages are never strangers to each other. Raducanu said earlier this week that they first met as 12-year olds at the prestigious junior event, the Orange Bowl.

“We first encountered each other because I was born in Toronto, and she was Canadian,” Raducanu said. Although by then Raducanu was living in London, and playing under the Union Jack, she said, “We kind of, like, made a little relationship back then.”

Their next memorable meeting took place in the junior Wimbledon tournament of 2018, when both of them were just 15. Raducanu won their second-round match in straight sets.

“Obviously, since then we've both come very far in our games and as people [since then],” Raducanu said. “Yeah, I'm sure it's going to be extremely different from when we last encountered each other.”

The other compelling feature of this final was stylistic. The difference between these two is like the contrast between jazz and R&B music. Fernandez, already close to the ground, appears to play from a perpetual crouch, often from far behind the baseline. Her foot speed and stamina were consistently underestimated at this event, as was the efficiency of her slice and perhaps even her lefty serve. She is unorthodox in a way similar to the man who will try to foil Novak Djokovic’s bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam on Sunday, Danill Medvedev. He may be a full foot taller, but he’s cut from similar athletic cloth.

Raducanu, a righthander, is only an inch taller than Fernandez, but she’s built on a sturdier platform. Her game is classic. She flows on the court like liquid and generates surprising power with her excellent timing. Like Fernandez, she is also swift, and expert at digging out shots that seem to have her beaten. But the key feature that separates Raducanu from other smooth-stroking baseliners is her aggression.

The excitement surging through the stadium was palpable through the first few games. Casual fans along with jaded veterans of Opens past seemed so torn about which of the two bright youngsters to back that they ended up rooting for both.

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Anyone who expected an anxiety-marred match between players overwhelmed by the occasion of a first Grand Slam final was wrong. The finalists came out swinging, and the break-point statistics tell a tale of offensive prowess as well as dogged defense. Raducanu probed and punched her way to 18 break points, but managed to win only four. Fernandez worked her way to nine break points, but only managed to successfully convert two.

In other words, a draw.

“Leylah is always going to play great tennis and she’s always ready to fight, Raducanu said during the trophy presentation. “I knew I had to dig deep, I think just staying in the moment and focusing on what I had to do. I think it shows that the future of women's tennis is great and the depth of the game is so deep right now.”

The outcome of this event was not only rich, it was extraordinary and deeply satisfying. There just hasn’t been a tournament like this since—well, probably since the last time a pair of teenagers met in a major final. That was in 1999, when the finalists were Martina Hingis and Serena Williams. But even that was very different.

Hingis was the top seed when the youngsters squared up on the asphalt in Arthur Ashe Stadium in that final, and Williams—already a match for Hingis in both the prodigy and hype departments—was No. 7. Fernandez wasn’t within shouting distance of the Top 50 going in this fortnight, and Raducanu was ranked No. 150, with a career tour record of 9-3.

“I wanted obviously to, like, be playing Grand Slams,” Raducanu said this week, explaining her thin record and why she only decided on pursuing a pro career some two years ago. “I didn't know how soon that would be. To be in a Grand Slam final at this stage of my career, yeah, I have no words.”

That was the second time this week that she confessed that words failed her. But again, nothing else did.