We can expect a loud environment on Saturday afternoon in Flushing Meadows, New York. The house built for Arthur Ashe seats 23,771 people and every single seat will be filled with a fan brimming with fascination and curiosity for the two young finalists, Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu.
Their appearance welcomes two teenagers: Fernandez from Canada and Raducanu from Great Britain. Their combined age is 37, Leylah turning 19 this week. Not a living soul thought they would play for the U. S. Open’s women’s singles title in 2021. No way were they supposed to be here. Yet out-of-the-ordinary is the beauty and magnetism of sport. It never grows old, and these players are younger than any of the finalists we might have imagined, with the sole possible exception of Coco Gauff.
We can expect a battle between Fernandez and Raducanu because this is their time, and their way to victory means no-holds-barred tennis. Both have demonstrated an unforeseen tenacity that stymied highly-seeded players over six rounds. One after the other their decorated opponents fell, failing to mount an offensive that would stop the teens’ momentum.
In the third round Fernandez, ranked 73 in the world, shocked Naomi Osaka, the two-time champion and No. 3 seed. Osaka had a chance to serve out the match, yet was ill-equipped to master the 18-year-old’s ingenuity of play, self belief, and perseverance.
“She just edged up near the end,” Fernandez said in her press conference. “In the second set I found the solution to returning her serve; and, from there on I was fighting and using the crowds’ energy.”
Raducanu had a steeper mountain to climb in her first appearance in New York because she had to qualify for the main draw, her ranking at 150 when she arrived in the Big Apple. She didn’t mind or never let on that she minded, winning every round in straight sets to become the first-ever qualifier in the Open Era (1968) to earn a berth in a Grand Slam final. She is 18 years old, yet her presence on court demonstrated a maturity of a seasoned tennis professional.
“Today was going to be a very difficult match against Maria Sakkari,” Raducanu told the press, after defeating the No. 17 seed in the semifinals on Thursday. “She’s an unbelievable player and probably one of the best athletes out there on tour. I knew that and knew I was going to have to play some of my best tennis.” Then, with complete composure, she continued, “And, honestly, I think I played some of my best tennis especially today here in New York.”
All the hundreds of touring pros in New York tell themselves that they’re going to have to play their best tennis to get past whoever is in their path, especially when they stand on the biggest tennis stage in the world and face a wall of relentless opposition in the name of Maria Sakkari, the French Open semifinalist. However, Raducanu does not have a resume like Sakkari’s, not even close. The British teen, who was born in Toronto, has three career match wins and three career matches lost. She’s earned less than $300,000; that ranking at 150, which got her into qualification, is her highest ever. Her run at Wimbledon made that possible.
Raducanu acknowledged Thursday that she, as a teen, can play freely. However, she also realized that one day a younger player will come along and challenge her. However, “Right now I’m just thinking of the game plan and how to execute and that’s what’s landed me in this situation. It hasn’t been who’s expected to win this match or that one; I’m just talking care of the day and that’s what I’m doing quite well at the moment.”
You can expect that wise-before-the-age presence will continue Saturday, during the final. It will not be their first meeting. They met at the Orange Bowl in the Under 12s and at the 2018 Wimbledon girls singles event. Nevertheless, the Saturday’s women’s singles final at the U.S. Open is neither of those.
“Impossible is nothing,” Fernandez said, after rolling over the No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka Thursday in the semifinal. “My dad [her coach] would tell me that there is no limit to my potential. Nothing’s impossible. There’s no limit.”
That mindset and youthful perspective can come across as naive and sweet. Just wait, we think, she will realize everything is not possible after a few crucial match losses when she can’t figure out what happened. Until then Fernandez’s outlook, at least today — that’s what matters to her — seems hard to articulate without being otherworldly.
“I’m just trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy; and, I’m glad that whatever I’m doing the fans are loving it and I’m loving it too, so we’ll say it’s magical.”
Fernandez’s and Raducanu’s separate runs at this U.S. Open also have an air of mystery. No matter the stats, facts, beliefs, and wisdom they carry at 19 and 18, respectfully, many things are unanswered and out of our reach for a reason. Mystery, though, certainly heightens the fascination and curiosity the world will bring Saturday to the last major women’s singles final of the year.