September 12, 2021

Stealing the Spotlight

Someone wrote before yesterday's women's final that it was going to be hard for the ladies to stir up a lot of drama and excitement at the U.S. Open when there was so much history on the line for the men. But, boy, did these two rise up to the challenge, huh?

There were so many firsts accomplished by Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez during their runs this year -- the youngest final since 1999, the first qualifier ever to reach a Major championship match, much less win it, just to name a few. But the achievements aren't just in the superlatives -- for two weeks, more for Raducanu, actually, these two demonstrated some of the best tennis has to offer, and their rise to the spotlight was more than well deserved.

Now, I often spend the first week of a Slam writing about the young standouts or the big upsets, assuming that I'll have a chance to cover the favorites later. But that would not be the case this year, at least not on the women's side.

I'll start with the incredible run from Fernandez, who you know I've had my eye on for a while. From one Major to the next, I'd been waiting for her to break through, and had been a little disappointed that it hadn't happened yet. She sure changed that in New York though -- she quickly dispatched a tough Ana Konjuh in her opener and then took out Melbourne Cinderella in straight sets.

And that's when things started to get really interesting. In the third round against defending champion Naomi Osaka -- a woman who was riding a 17-match win streak at the Majors -- the world #73 came back from a set and a break down to notch her first top ten win of the season and by far the biggest win of her career -- at least until that point. She went on to defeat former world #1 and three-time Slam winner Angelique Kerber, Olympic bronze medalist Elina Svitolina, and hard-hitting second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka, each in three sets, spending nearly 13 hours on court to make the final. It's one of the most illustrious lists of victims we've seen in a long time -- certainly from so unexpected a source.

Raducanu, meanwhile, had a much easier run to the final, at least on paper. Originally slated to meet Australian Open runner-up Jen Brady in the first round, she got a bit of a pass when the American withdrew due to injury. Her fourth round opponent, Shelby Rogers, was coming off a monster defeat of top seed Ash Barty, and her semifinal rival, an in-form Maria Sakkari, had pulled off huge wins over two-time Major winner Petra Kvitova, 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu, and Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova.

Still, that shouldn't diminish her accomplishment. After her breakout at Wimbledon ended so abruptly, she regrouped and recharged, making the final in Chicago last month and battling through qualifying rounds here. And the fact that, in only her second ever Major appearance, she made it through ten matches without losing a set shows she's got power and consistency far beyond her years -- and certainly that she's more mentally tough than any detractor might think.

So after all that, we were left crowning the youngest Major champion in more than 17 years, but also having gotten a glimpse of what should be a bright future for women's tennis. It doesn't feel like Raducanu is going anywhere for a while, and Fernandez, while she may be disappointed that she wasn't able to walk away with the "right" trophy, certainly has a lot to be proud of for what she did this fortnight. Will their success here lay the foundation for a years-long rivalry to come? Well, we'll certainly see.

But it sure feels like we've entered a new era -- and one that could be filled with a whole new level of greatness.

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