Leylah Fernandez vs. Emma Raducanu is the surreal U.S. Open final no one saw coming

NEW YORK—There will be not one but two Cinderellas attending the U.S. Open women’s final ball on Saturday.

Emma Raducanu, just 18 and ranked No. 150 on the WTA Tour, was born in Toronto of a Romanian father and Chinese mother. She moved to the United Kingdom at age two, but still has a Canadian passport.

Montreal-born Leylah Fernandez, ranked No. 73, turned 19 on Monday. The trilingual Fernandez is the product of a first-generation Canadian mother of Filipino descent and a father who emigrated from Ecuador as a child. For the last three years, she has lived in Florida.

It’s a true melting-pot finale, emblematic of a global game in which where you’re born isn’t necessarily where you’re from, or where you’re going next.

And this improbably youthful clash hearkens back to the 1980s and 1990s, when fresh-faced, teenage champions were the norm and not the exception.

It will be the first Grand Slam tournament final with two unseeded women, and the first with two teens since 17-year-old Serena Williams defeated 18-year-old Martina Hingis for the 1999 U.S. Open title.

On Thursday night, Fernandez became the youngest Grand Slam finalist since 17-year-old Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004. About 90 minutes later, she was supplanted by Raducanu, two months younger.

It’s all rather surreal.

“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,” Fernandez said after Thursday’s 7-6 (3) 4-6, 6-4 victory over world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. “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.”

How has she done it? The young woman herself has no idea. Ultimately, it has been a serendipitous, perfect storm.

A lefty serve is one of Canadian Leylah Fernandez’s key advantages.

The New York crowd is famous for getting behind the underdog. Fernandez, diminutive and demonstrative, is the perfect prototype.

And one thing is certain: There have been no shortcuts for either player.

Raducanu has had the longer road. With her current ranking, she had win three qualifying matches just to earn a spot in the main draw. So she has already played eight singles matches. And only the last two, against No. 11 seed and Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic in the quarterfinals and No. 17 seed Maria Sakkari in the semifinals, came against players ranked inside the top 40.

But if her list of conquests wasn’t quite the WTA top tier, it is equally true that Raducanu has been a buzz saw. In those eight matches, she has yet to drop a set.

“I always had dreams of playing in Grand Slams, but I just didn’t know when they would come,” Raducanu said after the near-effortless 6-1, 6-4 win over Sakkari. “To come this early, at this point in my career — I’ve only really been on tour for a month, two months since Wimbledon — it’s pretty crazy to me.”

Meanwhile, Fernandez dealt with the most daunting of draws.

Her first two opponents — Ana Konjuh and Kaia Kanepi, both former top-20 players now ranked lower because of injuries — possess the power that has always been effective against the left-hander, who is generously listed at five-foot-six.

Simply put, they didn’t play very well. And Fernandez was there to capitalize.

Then came two-time champion Naomi Osaka, the hardest hitter of them all.

But the Osaka who appeared on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the third round was a shadow of her best self. Indeed, after the 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 defeat, the 23-year-old announced she was taking an indefinite break from the game. Still, Osaka served for the match in the second set. The Fernandez fairy tale might well have ended, rather respectably, at that point.

After that came victories over former No. 1 Angelique Kerber and stalwart top-10 player Elina Svitolina, the No. 5 seed. In both matches, Fernandez was in plenty of trouble, but managed to find solutions. And her more experienced opponents wobbled co-operatively.

By the time the Canadian played Sabalenka, the momentum born of that confidence was in full flight. And the Belarusian simply wasn’t up to countering it.

Like Bencic, Sakkari and Kerber, Sabalenka owned up to the pressure of expectations — something Fernandez and Raducanu, they felt, have not yet experienced.

“I wouldn’t say that she did something; I would say that I destroyed myself,” a rueful Sabalenka said after the loss. “Now there is no pressure on her at all. Crowd are here for her. You kind of feel this crush and you’re using it, hitting the ball, (not) really thinking, everything is going in,” she added. “This is (a) nice kind of feeling. I felt it before.”

If Fernandez wins this most improbable of maiden Grand Slam titles, she will rise to the top 20 in the rankings. She would also knock Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 U.S. Open champion, out of the top 20 and become the new Canadian No. 1.

Both Fernandez and Raducanu are already guaranteed $ 1.25 million (U.S.) in prize money for reaching the final. The winner will double that to $ 2.5 million. (Fernandez earned an additional $ 27,000 by reaching the third round in doubles with Caledon, Ont.’s Erin Routliffe.)

It’s a lot, on every level. And it’s just the beginning.

The players Fernandez and Raducanu have kicked to the tennis curb along the way know that all too well.

These two insouciant teenagers are about to find out.

Tale of the tape

Here’s how the contenders match up in key areas for Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s final (4 p.m., TSN):

  • Who’s older? Fernandez, born Sept. 6, 2002, is two months older than Raducanu, who will turn 19 on Nov. 13.
  • A global final: Fernandez’s father is Ecuadorian, her mother a Toronto-born Filipino-Canadian. Born in Montreal, she lives in Florida. Raducanu was born in Toronto to a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, and lives in London.
  • Pro debuts: Fernandez had just turned 14 when she made her pro debut in Oct. 2016. She first appeared in the WTA rankings on July 31, 2017 (at No. 1,024). Raducanu played her first pro-level tournament in March, 2018, when she was 15. She first appeared in the rankings on May 28, 2018 (at No. 885).
  • Rankings disparity: Fernandez came into the Open ranked No. 73; Raducanu at No. 150. Both will be in the top 35 regardless of the outcome Saturday.
  • Best trophy: Fernandez’s best career moment (until this week) was winning a WTA 250 tournament in Monterrey, Mexico in March. A title at a $ 25,000 (U.S.) International Tennis Federation tournament in Pune, India in December 2019 is Raducanu’s best so far. There, she also came from the qualifying.
  • Head to head: Both 15, they met in the second round of junior Wimbledon in 2018, after Fernandez stepped onto a grass court for the first time in her life the previous week at a tune-up tournament in nearby Roehampton. Raducanu won routinely: 6-2, 6-4.
  • Keys to victory: Fernandez has many more ways to win points with a slice, a drop shot and, perhaps most important, a lefty serve that can pull her opponent out wide. Simply put, she has more game at this stage. And she has more experience in bigger tournaments, even if the British player has already proven she can shine on the sport’s biggest stages.

Raducanu’s stronger side by far is her backhand. In the predominant cross-court patterns that make up so much of a tennis match, that plays right into Fernandez’s best side, which is her forehand. She also has predictable patterns at this stage. Notably, she predominantly hit slice serves to Maria Sakkari in the semifinals Thursday. But for whatever reason, the Greek player never caught on and covered that shot, and continuously got fooled. Notably, Raducanu has rarely been pushed in her singles matches in New York. The Brit can get frustrated if things aren’t going well. Fernandez’s job is to not let her play, and try to create situations in which that frustration might come out.

If the Canadian continues to hug the baseline and take control of points as she has for a fortnight, she’ll likely win.

Stephanie Myles is a tennis freelance writer based in Montreal. Follow her on Twitter: @OpenCourt

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