Ahead of the 2021 US Open, the absence of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams loomed large. For the first time in more than 20 years a Grand Slam would be played without any of these titans of tennis, three of the biggest crowd-pullers in the sport. Would the US Open, which was to be played in front of capacity crowds again, be the same without them?
But sport has a way of finding new heroes and telling compelling stories. And it doesn’t get more compelling than the women’s final, played between two teenagers: Emma Raducanu, a qualifier, and Leylah Fernandez, World No 73.
Over the last few years, the merry-of-round of women’s champions (there have been 20 different women’s major champions in the last 10 years) have left fans dizzy. But the 18-year-old Raducanu, playing only her second major, and Fernandez, who turned 19 during the US Open fortnight, brought a fresh-faced, fearless frenzy that was spell-binding.
Raducanu, with strokes as crisp as her British accent, lit up the stage with her clean hitting and bright smile. The left-handed Fernandez, with her fiery attitude, wreaked havoc in the bottom half of the women’s draw as she took out defending champion Naomi Osaka, former champion Angelique Kerber, fifth seed Elina Svitolina and second seed Aryna Sabalenkaen route to the final.
The championship clash between World No 150 Raducanu and Fernandez was the first major final between two unseeded players. It was far-fetched even for the US Open, which follows the billing as loosely as its spectators follow tennis etiquette. Played on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York, it was also the first that pitted two players born after 2001.
Having started her journey on August 25, in the first round of qualifiers, Raducanu had found herself on an unlikely stage—she had booked her flight back to the UK for August 30 but had to keep delaying departure. But there were no nerves or stage fright as she entered the largest tennis stadium in the world. Like she had in all her matches so far, the Brit stepped up and took charge. She defeated Fernandez 6-4, 6-3 in one hour and 51 minutes to take the US Open crown. The winning shot encapsulated the audacity of her run. Raducanu, who had survived a bleeding knee during the game, which required a medical timeout, and break points in the final game, fired an ace wide at 108mph (173kmph) to seal the title.
“I don't think I made one serve that wide in the whole match, to be honest. I was like, 'If I'm going to make it, this is going to be the time,'” she said in the post-match press conference. “I literally drove my legs up to that ball toss like never before. I landed it. Just disbelief, trying to take everything in, all the moment.”
‘Disbelief’ is one way to describe her run. Less than four months ago she was still studying for her A-level exams, three months ago she made her tour-level main-draw debut in Nottingham. At Wimbledon, her maiden Grand Slam that she entered as a wildcard, she made the fourth round.
At the US Open, Raducanu became the first qualifier—male or female—to win a Grand Slam title. And she did it without dropping a set through the three weeks. She is the youngest woman to win a major since 17-year-old Maria Sharapova won the 2004 Wimbledon title and the second-lowest ranked women’s Grand Slam champion since an unranked Kim Clijsters won the US Open in 2009. She also became the first British woman to win a major since Virginia Wade—who was in audience during Saturday’s final—in 1977. Raducanu’s list of firsts is as endless as it is astonishing.
Even as people were wrapping their heads around what Raducanu and Fernandez had done the past fortnight, the Canadian youngster added a touch of class by calling for the mic and paying tribute to New York City. "I know on this day it's especially hard for New York and everyone around the United States. I just want to say that I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the last 20 years."
As the two finalists, holding their respective trophies, flashed their happy smiles for the camera, former US Open men’s champion Andy Roddick tweeted: ‘These two young women are a gift to tennis. An absolute gift.’ It wasn’t for just what they had done on the court but also what they represented.
In a heavily polarized world, Raducanu, born in Canada to a Chinese mother and Romanian father who migrated to the UK; and Fernandez, whose father is from Ecuador and mother is Filipino-Canadian, bring a message of tolerance and inclusivity. One UK tabloid cheekily put Raducanu’s image (after she reached the semi-finals), next to the Brexit headline of the day: ‘Migrants will be turned back to France.’ Raducanu confirmed her potential global appeal by sealing her US Open win with a message in Mandarin to her Chinese fans. On Monday, she reached a career high of 23 on the WTA charts—she was ranked No 338 before Wimbledon in June.
The men’s draw, which is usually more predictable, also saw a few youngsters shine through. USA’s Jenson Brooskby, 20, beat three top-100 players to make it to the round-of-16, while Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, also 20, continued on the upward curve as he made his first Grand Slam semi-final. Talented Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz announced his arrival on the big stage as he made the quarter-finals. The 18-year-old, who stunned third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round, became the youngest male player to make it to the last eight of US Open.
Despite the chaos in the earlier rounds, calm prevailed as the top two players in the world— Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev—made it to the final. But Medvedev turned Djokovic’s long-awaited coronation into his own Grand Slam breakthrough. The gangly Russian with an unorthodox game upstaged the steadiest player of the last decade in the most important match of his life.
Medvedev, playing his third major final, defeated Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to deny him a calendar Grand Slam. Djokovic had won the Australian Open (by beating Medvedev in straight sets in the final), French Open and Wimbledon, and accumulated 27 Grand Slam match wins in a row. But he fell one match, three sets, short of becoming the first man since Rod Laver (1969) to win a Grand Slam. A title win at Flushing Meadows would have also seen him break the tie of 20 majors, which he holds with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Sunday’s final proved to be an unusual occasion for the Serb. Djokovic, so long the intruder in the ‘Fedal’ narrative and used to playing with crowd against him, seemed overwhelmed when they flooded in to see him make history. The New York crowd, which usually backs the underdog, was uproariously pro-Djokovic and even heckled Medvedev during the closing stages of the match. For once, the 34-year-old Djokovic had the affection of the crowd that he seems to crave, but the Serb lost his nerve. Either the pressure of the potential achievement or the extra five hours and 35 minutes he had spent than his opponent on the way to the final, caught up to him. The Serb is usually dialed-in and resilient. On Sunday he was error-prone and emotional.
“Of course, part of me is very sad. It's a tough one to swallow, this loss, I mean, considering everything that was on the line,” Djokovic said. “But on the other hand I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me [feel] very special. They pleasantly surprised me.”
Medvedev used his pin-point serve and flat groundstrokes to quash Djokovic’s challenge and win his first Grand Slam title. It was the first time that a player from ATP’s famed Next Gen roster had beaten a member of the Big 3 in a Major final. The US Open was supposed to be Djokovic’s shot at history. Instead, it ended up giving us a glimpse of a sparkling future.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.