The Washington Post
A contrast in styles and a look ahead
Women’s U.S. Open final features a pair of confident teenagers who have taken the tennis world by storm over two stunning weeks in New York
new york — In blazing their improbable paths to the U.S. Open final, teenagers Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu have earned a guaranteed sevenfigure payday ($2.5 million for the victor, $1.25 million for the runner-up), legions of new fans and shout-outs from their nation’s respective heads of state, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British counterpart Boris Johnson.
Along the way, they have given new life to their sport with their fresh faces, their fresh games and the sheer exuberance of their play.
But when they step onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for Saturday’s championship, Fernandez, 19, and Raducanu, 18, will have lost the advantage that has served them so well to date — the benefit of having nothing to lose against far more seasoned opponents.
Between them, the 73rd-ranked Fernandez and 150th-ranked Raducanu have ushered off world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 3 Naomi Osaka, No. 5 Elina Svitolina, Olympic champion Belinda Bencic and three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber.
They are the unlikely finalists left standing. And the question, with a U.S. Open championship at stake, turns to who can play most freely, most bravely and with the abandon of the underdog when her opponent is as much of an underdog as she.
Fernandez and Raducanu are the first teenagers to meet in the U.S. Open final since 1999, when Serena Williams won the first of her 23 majors at 17, with a victory over 18-year-old Martina Hingis.
Though both are an antidote to ball-bludgeoning tennis, Fernandez and Raducanu bring different strengths to Saturday’s match.
The 5-foot-9 Raducanu, who did ballet and played multiple sports as a child in Britain, is agile and fleet on court and denies opponents time by taking the ball early.
Though her serve isn’t powerful, her return game is. She has a knack for timing her shots and keen problem-solving skills.
With that combination, Raducanu has won every match — three in qualifying and six in the main draw — in straight sets to become the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era.
The left-handed Fernandez, who is 5-6, has a remarkable ability to absorb the blasts of more powerful hitters and redirect the ball, often at sharp angles to open spots on the court even the fittest can’t reach.
But Fernandez’s most fierce asset can’t be seen or quantified. It’s a fighter’s heart and bedrock belief that she can do anything.
“Nothing’s impossible,” Fernandez said after clinching her spot in the final. “There’s no limit to what I can do.”
The differences in the games of Fernandez and Raducanu should make an engaging on-court battle.
Off-court, the two share an immigrant-family narrative and multicultural upbringing. And each has become an enormous point of pride in her parents’ adoptive countries.
Fernandez is coached by her father, Jorge, who played soccer in Ecuador. Her mother is Filipino Canadian.
Though not on-site at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Jorge Fernandez had provided his daughter’s game plans, instruction and motivational talks before each U.S. Open match by phone.
In a Zoom interview with journalists Friday, he described himself as “an old-school coach.”
“I’ve always been a very, very demanding and tough coach,” Jorge Fernandez said. “Whenever we lose, we get back to work really hard. . . . I believe in the grind. I believe in the hard work. I believe in the suffering. If we do that enough, then we get really, really strong.”
Fernandez, who considers match-toughness among her strengths, alluded to her family’s financial challenges in recalling her preteen years when her mother left their home in Canada for a job in California to help support the family and her training.
“That few years [was] definitely hard for me because I needed a mom, I needed someone to be there for me through the age of 10 to 13,” Fernandez said.
But her mother’s absence didn’t shake her resolve. Nor did the skepticism of a grade-school teacher who told her to stop playing tennis because she would “never make it.”
That voice — and her family’s sacrifice — drive Fernandez to this day.
Raducanu was born in Toronto but moved to London with her family when she was 2.
She was identified as a preteen of special talent by Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, which supported her development as a young teen.
Her Romanian father and Chinese mother have not been directly involved in her training, but Raducanu credits her mother and her Asian heritage with her work ethic and composure on court.
“For me, having a Chinese mom, she definitely instilled from a young age hard work, discipline,” Raducanu said. “When I was younger, I would take a lot of inspiration from Li Na [China’s now retired two-time Grand Slam champion], even now, just the way she was such a fierce competitor. . . . Her inner strength and belief really stood out for me.”
Women’s tennis was riddled with questions when the 2021 U.S. Open got underway.
Williams, its greatest champion, withdrew because of a lingering injury and will turn 40 this month. The next step for thirdranked Osaka, 23, a four-time Grand Slam champion, is uncertain, with Osaka revealing after her third-round U.S. Open defeat last week to Fernandez that she had lost joy in winning and felt deep sadness in defeat.
But the future of the sport may well have emerged.