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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, September 11, 2021

 
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Photo credit: Garrett Ellwood/Darren Carroll/USTA/US Open Facebook

Tennis is all about timing.

Clocking the ball with precision, teenagers Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu look like they’re having the time of their lives—and have taken wildly enthusiastic Arthur Ashe Stadium on thrill rides climaxing in a magical US Open final.

McEnroe: Novak Aims to Obliterate Major Mark

Charismatic, charming and ultra-competitive teenage stars square off in a historic and futuristic US Open final at 4 p.m.

Inspiration is inexplicable sometimes.

The 150th-ranked Raducanu and 73rd-ranked Fernandez were both astronomical long-shots before the event began and now here we are weeks later both and are mega-stars gaining global fan followings.

They’ve known each other since their days on the international junior circuit and share some similarities. Both were born in Canada—Raducanu in Toronto and Fernandez in Montreal—and have Asian heritage. Raducanu’s mom, Renee is Chinese, Fernandez’s mother, Irene, is of Filipino descent. They come from close multi-cultural families—Raducanu’s dad Ian is Romanian and Fernandez’s father and coach Jorge is Ecuadorian. Both are shotmakers with a flair for the down the line dagger and both have rocketed to meteoric heights with crowd-pleasing performances that have made them massive favorites of loud New York crowds.

The most unlikely US Open final in history is a shared Cinderella story of riveting runs. The winner will be the youngest Grand Slam champion since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova shocked defending champion Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final.

The 18-year-old Raducanu is the first qualifier in history—male or female—to reach a Grand Slam singles final and only the second woman to reach a final after fewer than three Slam appearances.

The 19-year-old Fernandez has upset two ex-champions—defending champion Naomi Osaka and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber—and toppled three Top-5 players en route to the final, including her riveting 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) win over fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina and 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 upset of second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals.

This is the ninth all-teenage women’s Grand Slam final in the Open Era and the first since the 1999 US Open when a 17-year-old Serena Williams toppled world No. 1 and 18-year-old Martina Hingis 6-3, 7-6(4) to capture her maiden major and launch her legendary Grand Slam career.



Both young women have earned the respect and devotion from New York fans and if they can manage the spiking nerves in their maiden major title match we should see a fierce final.

Here’s our final preview.

Leylah Fernandez (CAN) vs. Emma Raducanu (GBR)

Head-to-Head: First Meeting

Ranking: Fernandez No. 73; Raducanu No. 150

2021 Record: Fernandez 19-12; Raducanu 9-3

Career Slam Record: Fernandez 10-6; Raducanu 9-1

Career Three-Set Record: Fernandez 9-6; Raducanu 0-0

Career Tie Break Record: Fernandez 5-4; Raducanu 1-0


Leylah Fernandez on reaching the US Open final: “I think I've been doing some things incredible. I don't know. It's like I think one word that really stuck to me is 'magical' because not only is my run really good but also the way I'm playing right now.

"I'm just having fun, I'm trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy. I'm glad that whatever I'm doing on court, the fans are loving it and I'm loving it, too. We'll say it's magical.”


Emma Raducanu on reaching the US Open final: “A surprise. Yeah, honestly I just can't believe it. A shock. Crazy. All of the above. But, yeah, it means a lot to be here in this situation.

"I wanted obviously to, like, be playing Grand Slams, but I didn't know how soon that would be. To be in a Grand Slam final at this stage of my career, yeah, I have no words.”

Why Emma Raducanu Will Win

Roll Player

The 18-year-old qualifier will win because she hasn’t lost.

Raducanu is on a historic roll sweeping all 18 sets she’s played—including three wins in qualifying—and permitting just 27 games in six main-draw match wins. She’s bidding to become the first woman to win the US Open without surrendering a set since Serena Williams in 2014.

The first qualifier—male or female—to reach a Grand Slam singles final will win because she carries the confidence that comes from winning 20 of her last 24 matches at all levels. Radacanu won’t play this match on hope, she knows she can win because she hasn’t lost. Success fuels success and that powerful confidence will drive her to the title.

Line Lasers

Raducanu’s breakthrough is about much more than her mega-watt smile and crowd-pleasing presence.

The British teenager plays a clever mix of high-percentage combinations and bold down the line drives. She’s skilled ripping her forehand down the line and has good deception on that wing. Throughout this spirited run to the final, Raducanu has often changed direction first in pivotal rallies. She’s shown the patience to play deep crosscourt drives to set up opportunities and she’s shown the courage to step in and take her cracks down the line—a play she used at the right time to torch Maria Sakkari in the semifinals.

Serve & Speed

The serve is magnified in maiden major finals because under massive pressure movement and serving are two components capable of going kablooey.

Watch Raducanu use the wide serve on both sides to set up her first strike—she will aim to stretch the shorter Canadian and take the initiative from the first strike. Raducanu has dropped serve just five times, she’s winning 90 percent of her service games, has committed just 12 double faults and owns a smooth service motion. Holding serve is the most vital stat in a Slam final and if Raducanu continues to impose serve hold she will win.

The Briton is already one of the smoothest movers in the women’s game—Raducanu was a dancer, skier, horse-back rider and go-kart racer before committing to tennis as a career two years ago—has the ability to extend points and is quick off the mark so she’ll be ready to run down Fernandez’s crafty drop shots. In main-draw matches, Raducanu has had the far smoother road to the final, she's spent five hours fewer on court and should have the fresher legs.

Why Leylah Fernandez Will Win

Fearless Fighter

New Yorkers love fighters and few have shown the powerful appetite for the fight like Fernandez. Bouncing on her toes behind the baseline like a boxer waiting for the bell ring, Fernandez has shown a fierce fighting spirit and a Jimmy Cliff-Jimmy Connors “the harder they come, the harder they fall” mentality to every match.

Think about how Fernandez has won baseline battles standing toe-to-toe with some of the biggest hitters in the sport—Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka—and knocked-out precise counter-punchers Angelique Kerber, the 2016 champion, and fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina. Not only has Fernandez barely looked fazed staring down the elite, she’s actually looked excited by the experience leaving some of those veterans unnerved, including Sabalenka who dissolved amid Fernandez’s frenetic energy and the pressure.

Fernandez has fought off any style thrown at her, figured out all comers and will adapt to Raducanu’s as well.

Rising Star

The left-handed Canadian isn’t waiting for a moment to happen, she’s making it happen. Fernandez’s dynamic style of play is predicated on her skill straddling the baseline and taking the ball on the rise.

A primary reason the lefty listed at 5’6” (in her Asics shoes) has taken down bigger and stronger players is her skill timing the ball on the rise and her sheer refusal to give up too much ground behind the baseline is a weapon. Fernandez is adept at using your power against you, robbing you of reaction time and curling her crosscourt lefty forehand to pin you in the corner before taking her forehand up the line.

Fernandez has court craft, fine feel—she used the drop shot to frustrate Osaka in a racquet-hurling malaise—and shrewd understanding of the geometry of the court. She will use it all to unsettle Raducanu and make her play from obscure areas of the court.

Magic Maker & Fan Favorite

Sometimes, players get on historic rolls that defy explanation and rationalization. Fernandez has done more than upset a trio of Top-5 players and a pair of Grand Slam champions, she’s proven the power of human connection.

Playing for a cause bigger than herself—her family and their future—has infused this young woman an electrical presence that’s ignited the Arthur Ashe Stadium faithful. If you’ve seen some of Fernandez’s finest moments in this tournament then you’ve seen her transform a tennis stadium into the feel of a football stadium.

Fernandez forgoes the cap or visor and shows her face to show you exactly how she’s feeling on court. She invites fans in and turns them on with both her fearless feistiness, fire and desire and the sheer joy she exudes—and she’s often credited the crowd with helping her get over the finish line. It’s a unique connection between athlete and audience, a powerful force and one that she will wield to conclude this spectacular ride raising the silver title trophy.

Yes, Fernandez has spent five hours more on court than Raducanu and certainly fatigue can be a factor, but Fernandez is battle tested, she's played much tougher competition to reach the final and remember she loves the fight.

Prediction

Your guess is as good as mine.

Seriously, this has been the most wildly unpredictable women’s draw in recent US Open history.

So what happens when two fascinating fairy-tale fighters collide in the final?

Hopefully a fairy-tale fight to the finish.

Given Raducanu has not lost a set, if she wins here it will likely be in straight sets.

If this final goes the distance, I favor Fernandez who has been strengthened by struggle her entire life—and is 5-0 in tiebreakers this tournament winning a breaker in five of six matches she’s played.

Anything can happen, but one things for sure: these two young women have brought the buzz back to the US Open and made New Yorkers—and fans all over the world—feel how much fun and exciting our sport can be when played with this level of fervor and passion.

Tennis is the winner regardless of who raises the shiny silver US Open trophy.

 

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