The next generation of tennis stars has arrived, and two will be on full display in the women’s U.S. Open final.
Teenagers Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu stunned the tennis world Thursday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, with each improbably advancing to her first Grand Slam final appearance. The 19-year-old Canadian and 18-year-old Brit are set to square off Saturday in a showdown between two of the sport’s rising talents.
It will be the eighth Grand Slam final in the Open Era between teenagers and the first since 1999.
Following her 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 triumph over second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, Fernandez became the youngest woman to reach a Grand Slam final since Maria Sharapova beat Serena Williams to win Wimbledon in 2004. Well, that was until Raducanu — who is now the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam women’s singles final in the Open Era — cruised to a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Greek powerhouse Maria Sakkari.
“Honestly, being young, there is an element of you do play completely free,” Raducanu said after her match. “I’m sure that when I’m older or have more experience, the same will happen to me. I think the tables will turn, some younger players will come through. But, honestly, right now, I’m just thinking of the game plan, how to execute and that’s what’s landed me in this situation.”
The two teens have dominated the headlines at the U.S. Open, highlighted by Raducanu not conceding a single set as a qualifier and Fernandez upsetting three top-10 seeds — including defending U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka. Both of their magical runs to the final have been undeniably captivating in a tournament that was star-depleted at the outset.
“I think it was maybe Orange Bowl, under-12s or something, it was definitely under-12s,” Raducanu said of when she first faced Fernandez. “We first encountered each other because I was born in Toronto and she was Canadian, so we kind of made a little relationship back then. Then I played her at Junior Wimbledon.
“Obviously, since then, we’ve both come very far in our games, and as people. I’m sure it’s going to be extremely different to when we last encountered each other, but we’re both playing good tennis so it will be a good match.”
Fernandez may have won her very first WTA Tour singles title just a few months ago, but she plays to the crowd like a seasoned veteran. Such was the case Thursday night in her victory, which pitted Fernadez’s style versus Sabalenka’s power.
“I would say it’s thanks to the New York crowd,” Fernandez said with a smile in her on-court interview. “They’ve helped me today, they’ve cheered for me. They never gave up on me, they fought for me. Thanks to you, I was able to win, so thank you New York.”
Fernandez and Sabalenka went shot for shot through the first six games of the third set, aside from the fifth, when Sabalenka held Fernandez to love. Fernandez then showed off the tremendous variety she possesses in her shots and stole a 10-point sixth game to pull ahead 4-2.
That’s when Sabalenka channeled her frustrations onto the court, which allowed her to pull even in the final set. But Fernandez captured eight of the next nine points to put the match away before collapsing onto the court in disbelief.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Fernandez said in her post-match press conference. “A swarm of emotions just came in. I was glad that I fought so hard for two-plus hours and that all the hard work is paying off and I’m in the finals.”
Raducanu became the first qualifier to ever reach the final of a major tournament, which happens to be just the second of her career. Her straight sets win over the 17th-seeded Sakkari took less than 90 minutes.
After easily building a 5-0 lead in the first set, Raducanu continued to be strong on the forehand and calculated in her shots. Sakkari didn’t get on the board until the sixth game, and wasn’t able to put any pressure on Raducanu throughout the match.
Raducanu finished with 16 winners and just 17 unforced errors compared to Sakkari’s 17 winners and 33 unforced errors.
“They are both young, they play fearless,” Sakkari said of the teens. “They have nothing to lose playing against us.”