Th incredulous run of US Open champion Emma Raducanu, even in this gloriously unpredictable era of unseeded and teenage champions in women’s tennis, is unprecedented.
The 18-year-old, who was ranked a career-high 150 in the world ahead of the tournament, became the first ever qualifier to win a Grand Slam title. She defeated fellow teen Leylah Fernandez 6-4, 6-3 in a special match of tennis. The achievement itself is extraordinary given her age and rank. But the way she went about in what in just her second Major appearance, is even more unbelievable.
Without dropping a set across qualifying and the main draw: 10 matches played, 20 sets played and won.
Without having won a single WTA tour-level match in three months since debut.
Without ever having gotten her ranking high enough to directly make a Grand Slam, let alone a WTA tournament.
Let that all sink in.
One would be forgiven for not having heard of Raducanu before her run in New York. She made her WTA main draw debut only in June. She had not played a Top 40 player before her US Open run. Her biggest title before this was a 125K in Pune.
Or perhaps you first came across her during Wimbledon, when she made her Grand Slam debut as a wildcard and stormed to the second week, beating the likes of Sorana Cirstea and Marketa Vondrousova.
In her top-billed fourth round match against Ajla Tomljanovic, she had to heartbreakingly retire mid-match due to what was said to be breathing issues. This was interpreted by a section as Raducanu not being mentally ready for the big stage and led to some unsavoury hot takes.
If ever there was a way to answer those questions in an emphatic style, it would be winning the very next Grand Slam she played without dropping a set across 10 matches. Raducanu went ahead and did it.
The Brit, born to a Romanian father and Chinese mother, is the youngest Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova won 2004 Wimbledon aged 17 and the first woman to win the US Open without dropping a set since Serena Williams in 2014. Raducanu is also the lowest-ranked player to win the US Open title since an unranked Kim Clijsters won on comeback from maternity break in 2009.
A fearless final
Raducanu’s run is not the sign of a supposed ‘weak era’ of WTA, but instead, of previously unimaginable strength in women’s tennis.
The field at US Open was near full-strength with proper tune-up events. Yes, the draw opened up on her side and the first seed she faced was Olympic gold medalist and No.11 seed Belinda Bencic in the quarter-final. But she beat Shelby Rogers – who had stunned top seed and Cincinnati champion Ashleigh Barty – and French Open semi-finalist Maria Sakkari who had taken out three top-10 seeds.
In the final, Raducanu was up against another fearless teenager in Fernandez, who had enjoyed a more ground-breaking path to the final. The world No 73 had beaten defending champ Naomi Osaka, 2016 winner Angelique Kerber, Olympic medallist Elina Svitolina and second seed Aryna Sabalenka in three-set battles each.
Simply put, the Canadian would appear to have a slight edge coming in. But the simple sporting concepts of momentum and experience don’t apply to players like Raducanu, who has shredded the record books in her second Grand Slam, months after acing her study books for A levels.
Although a straight-set result in the end, the final was by no means one-sided. The all-teen clash was a display of aggression and athleticism, defense and determination, speed and shot-selection, courage and composure.
The best illustration of this was the second games of both sets. In the first set, the second game lasted more than 10 minutes as Fernandez came back from 0-40 down to push to deuce five times before Raducanu converted her sixth break point to go 2-0. She was broken right back but broke again on her fourth set point to take the set that had lasted close to an hour. In the second, the Canadian saved three break points to hold and was the first to break. But somewhere the toll of four straight three-set battles and Raducanu’s incredible ability to paint winners from all over the court combined to take her down.
The final game had more drama as the Brit, facing a break point while serving for the title, hurt her leg and needed a medical timeout to staunch the blood flow. She had squandered two championship points on return in the last game, but staved off two break points to seal it with a wide ace that kissed the line.
It was a final show of fearless grit in a campaign that had been defined by Raducanu’s commanding game-play, mature attitude to tricky situations and ability unfazed by the spotlight. “I don’t feel absolutely any pressure. I’m still only 18 years old. I’m just having a free swing as anything that comes my way. That’s how I faced every match here in the States. I faced a lot of adversity in every single one of my matches… It got me this trophy so I don’t think I should change anything,” she said after the match.
Only 18, feeling no pressure and swinging. Raducanu has blazed a new template at the US Open with a run for the ages and, hopefully, it’s only going to get better.
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