Emma Raducanu of Great Britain reacts after beating Maria Sakkari of Greece in the semi-finals of the US Open tennis championships on Thursday, September 9, 2021, in New York City. Frank Franklin II / AP hide legend
. Frank Franklin II / AP
Frank Franklin II / AP
NEW YORK (AP) Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez are alike in many ways: they possess enviable speed and anticipation. They take the balls low to the ground and redirect them easily. They don’t care how better known or better the opponents are. They love the big time.
There is more. They are both teenagers. They are both unranked at the US Open. They are both supported by the crowd. And now, remarkably, they’re both Grand Slam finalists.
Raducanu, an 18-year-old Briton ranked 150th, and Fernandez, a 19-year-old Canadian ranked 73rd, took very different paths for the championship game at Flushing Meadows on Thursday night. They will return to Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday for the first major final between two teenagers since the 1999 US Open, when 17-year-old Serena Williams defeated 18-year-old Martina Hingis.
Raducanu became the first qualifier to reach a professional-era Grand Slam final by crushing 17th seed Maria Sakkari 6-1, 6-4. Appearing in just her second major tournament, Raducanu won all 18 sets she played in three qualifying round games and six in the main draw.
“I just took care of every day,” Raducanu said, “and before you know it, three weeks later I’m in the final and can’t believe it.”
That can? Not Raducanu, who originally bought a plane ticket to leave New York after qualifying was over, thinking that might be the end of his stay.
Quickly she led Sakkari 5-0 and nothing really changed from there. Sakkari has had seven break points during this period; Raducanu had three. The difference? Sakkari could not convert any; Raducanu took advantage of two chances or, better, accepted the generosity of his opponent on two of them, once on a backhand at the net, once on a double fault.
In the end, Raducanu committed just 17 unforced errors against Sakkari’s 33 and is now the youngest Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at age 17 in 2004.
Fernandez isn’t much older than her birthday on Monday and she pulled off a semifinal filled with momentum jumps to beat No.2 Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4.
“They are both young. They play without fear,” Sakkari said of Raducanu and Fernandez. “They have nothing to lose by playing against us.”
Raducanu agreed with this assessment, saying, “Being young, there is an element of you playing completely for free.”
Sakkari is 26, Sabalenka 23. Each recently made their Grand Slam semi-final debut: Sakkari lost that round at Roland Garros in June, Sabalenka at Wimbledon in July.
“I am sad,” Sakkari said. “I’m very broken that I couldn’t qualify for my first final, again. But I’m sure it will happen soon.”
Wimbledon was Raducanu’s only previous major tournament; she entered via an entry with a wild card with a ranking outside the top 300 and reached the fourth round before stopping in the second set with respiratory problems. Fernandez’s best past performance in a Slam was to qualify for the third round at Roland Garros last year.
From early Thursday, Sabalenka seemed in control, winning 12 of the first 14 points for a 3-0 lead. Only eight minutes had passed and most of the spectators had not yet reached their seats. It was only later that the more than 20,000 people in the stands rallied fist-in-the-air Fernandez with chants of “Let’s go, Leylah! Let’s go!” accompanied by rhythmic applause.
“I’m glad that whatever I do on the court the fans love it and I love it too,” Fernandez said. “We’re going to say it’s magic.”
At the end of the first set and again of the third, it was Sabalenka who let go. In the last game, she committed two double faults in a row to establish match point, then delivered a long forehand.
“It is,” Sabalenka said, “this is what we call pressure.”
Either way, apparently Fernandez didn’t feel it. Did not hesitate. And why would she do it at this point? His balance, like Raducanu’s, is as limitless as their potential.
It was left-hander Fernandez’s fourth straight three-set victory over a seeded opponent. First, the n ° 3 Naomi Osaka, champion of the US Open 2018 and 2020. Then came the n ° 16 Angelique Kerber, the 2016 champion. Then come the n ° 5 Elina Svitolina and Sabalenka.
“There is no limit to what I can do. I’m just happy that things are going well right now, ”said Fernandez, who could give Canada their second straight US Open women’s title, following Bianca Andreescu’s triumph in 2019.
Raducanu and Fernandez are both citizens of the world.
Raducanu was born in Toronto to a Chinese mother and a Romanian father; the family moved to England when Emma was 2 years old.
Fernandez was born in Montreal to a Filipino Canadian mother and an Ecuadorian father; the family moved to Florida after Leylah was successful as a junior at the age of 12. Dad is also her trainer, though he’s not with her in New York City, instead offering workout advice during daily phone conversations.
Maybe he told his daughter to let Sabalenka make all the mistakes in a tiebreaker because that’s what happened at the end of the first set. Sabalenka took the lead 2-0 and then lost her way completely. Every point Fernandez won came thanks to a misfire by Sabalenka.
“I wouldn’t say she did something,” Sabalenka said. “I would say I am destroying myself.”
In the second set, Sabalenka regained his form and Fernandez took a step back. But in the third, it was Fernandez’s turn to shine.
“Now she’s like (a) top 10 player,” Sabalenka said. “We will see how good she will be in the future.”
Raducanu and Fernandez first met when they both played in Under-12 tournaments and bonded through their common bond with Canada. On Saturday, they will share land for the first time in a round-level match.
They did, however, play in the second round of the Wimbledon junior tournament in 2018.
Raducanu won this one. Three years later, they will perform again on a more grandiose stage and with many, many more stakes.
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