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. Raducanu becomes the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam singles title in Open era (since 1968).
Ranked No. 150 in the world two weeks ago, 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.
Raducanu, who didn’t play competitively last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had a semi-breakthrough at Wimbledon this summer when she reached the fourth round. But nobody, including herself, could have envisioned a run like this, becoming the first British woman since Virginia Wade in 1968 to win the U.S. Open.
But none of the historic significance, or the increasingly high stakes of her matches, seemed to rattle Raducanu. At every turn, all she did was hit the ball harder and cleaner, putting pressure on a series of opponents who seemed bewildered at the consistent power and accuracy of her shots.
Fernandez, an unseeded 19-year old whose own longshot journey to the final included a trio of wins over players ranked in the top five, was the sentimental favorite of the New York crowd when the match began.
But Fernandez, too, was put on the defensive by Raducanu’s free-swinging approach and felt that tension particularly on her serve. At every opportunity, particularly on second serves, Raducanu hammered returns right back at Fernandez or guided them into the open court, setting up breaks at key moments in the match, including a clean forehand winner to finish the first set.
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Fernandez briefly turned the momentum of the match in her favor early in the second set, but scratchy serving once again compromised her ability take control of points. Raducanu seized that opening and, at 3-2, broke Fernandez yet again, winning the game with a beautifully redirected forehand down the line after anticipating Fernandez’s approach 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 break points and take a medical timeout to get a wound bandaged after she skidded and fell.
But Raducanu got back up quickly and finished the match with ace to the backhand corner, falling on her back as the U.S. Open champion.