NEW YORK — Emma Raducanu didn’t need the experience of playing for years on the pro circuit or testing her game against the top women in the world. She didn’t even need a direct entry into the U.S. Open.
As it turned out, all the 18-year old phenomenon from Great Britain needed to win a Grand Slam title was her preternatural poise, her massive forehand and a stage like Arthur Ashe Stadium to showcase a level of ability nobody in the world could have known she had.
In the most surprising Grand Slam result in the history of the sport, Raducanu won the U.S. Open title on Saturday, defeating Leylah Fernandez of Canada 6-4, 6-3, to conclude just the fifth tournament she’s ever entered at the highest level of women’s tennis.
Ranked in the 300s just two months ago and No. 150 entering the U.S. Open, Raducanu didn’t just beat everyone she faced in New York, she absolutely bulldozed the opposition, winning 20 straight sets, including the three matches she played in the qualifying tournament just to get into the main draw. She is the first qualifier, male or female, to win a Grand Slam tournament and will move up to No. 23 on Monday.
“From pretty early on I’ve always dreamed of winning a Grand Slam, and you say, ‘I want to win a Grand Slam,'” she said. “But to have the belief I did in actually executing it, I can’t believe it.”
Raducanu and Fernandez had played once before in the junior tournament at Wimbledon in 2018, but whereas most of Raducanu’s peers had gone on to start their pro careers, she stayed in London to finish high school when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. After not playing competitively for most of 2020, she got into Wimbledon this year as a wildcard entry, a few of which the tournament reserves for up-and-coming British players.
Raducanu took full advantage of the opportunity, reaching the fourth round and becoming something of a national sensation in a country that had not produced a women’s champion since Virginia Wade, who won three Grand Slam titles including the 1968 U.S. Open and was in attendance Saturday.
But the excitement over Raducanu in Great Britain was mostly about her long-term future. Nobody, including herself, could have envisioned that by the end of summer she’d become the eighth woman age 18 or younger to win a major title and the first since Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004.
As she advanced through the draw, though, it did not seem to matter to Raducanu that the opponents were getting tougher and the stakes growing higher. At every turn, all she did was hit the ball harder and cleaner, putting pressure on a series of veteran opponents like Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic and semifinalist Maria Sakkari, who seemed bewildered at the consistent power and accuracy of her shots.
“Wimbledon was such an incredible experience – I couldn’t believe it,” Raducanu said. “But I was still hungry. I was working hard after the grass and straight back out here in the States and with each match and week I’ve really built in terms of confidence, my game, my ball striking and everything came together.”
In the final, Raducanu had to face another teenager making a long-shot run to the final in Fernandez, who had beaten a trio of players ranked in the top-five and become the sentimental favorite of the New York crowd.
‘JOB IS NOT DONE’: Novak Djokovic one win from calendar Grand Slam
In those matches against the likes of Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka, the 19-year old Fernandez played far bigger than her No. 73 ranking and her petite 5-foot-6 frame.
But she, too, was put on the defensive by Raducanu’s free-swinging approach and felt that tension particularly on her serve. At every opportunity, Raducanu hammered returns right back at Fernandez or blasted them into open corners to take control of points.
That aggression, combined with Fernandez making only 58 percent of her first serves, led to breaks at key moments in the match, including a clean forehand winner to finish the first set.
“I’m disappointed. I think I’m going to carry this loss for a very long time,” Fernandez said. “But I’m very happy with myself, with the way I competed and played and acted on court the past two weeks. Unfortunately, I made one too many mistakes in key moments.”
Fernandez briefly turned the momentum of the match in her favor early in the second set and was up 2-1 with a break, but Raducanu immediately retrieved it by shifting gears and finding sharp angles on two consecutive cross-court backhands that Fernandez never had a chance to run down.
In Fernandez’s next service game, Raducanu went back to raw power with deep groundstrokes off both sides that produced more winners to give her two break points. And at 30-40, with Fernandez rushing the net after a good serve, Raducanu anticipated her approach shot and darted to the forehand corner, redirecting the ball back down the line a clean passing shot.
Down 5-2, Fernandez saved two match points and forced Raducanu to serve it out, which became an adventure when she had to save two break points that would have given Fernandez a chance to flip the set back in her favor. In between them, Raducanu took a medical timeout to get a wound bandaged on her left leg after she skidded off the court during a previous point.
“I didn’t actually want to stop because I thought it would disrupt my own rhythm, but I wasn’t allowed to play on because my knee was gushing with blood and the umpire said I needed to get it treated right away,” Raducanu said. “I was just trying to really think about what my patterns of play were going to be, what I was going to try to execute and going out and facing a break point after a two, three-minute disruption isn’t easy. But I managed to really pull off the clutch plays when I needed to.”
Fernandez was not pleased with the stoppage in play, but Raducanu went back up to the line, saved the break point and finished the match with ace to the backhand corner, falling on her back as the U.S. Open champion.