A major final between No. 150 and No. 73? What a dud tournament, right? Wrong.
Many tennis observers have said over the past week that the 2021 U.S. Open women’s tournament is as good a major tournament as they have seen in quite some time. Whether you agree with that statement or not, the matches have certainly been compelling the whole way through. Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez earned their way to the final. This doesn’t feel like a fluke. They have been legitimately better than their opponents.
Yes, the veterans in search of a first major title did not play their best. They felt the pressure and did not transcend it. Yet, we haven’t seen what we could reasonably call an “ugly choke” or any instance in which Raducanu and Fernandez won primarily because their opponents crumbled. Their opponents didn’t deliver their very best, but Fernandez in particular showed extraordinary match-management skills and a finely-calibrated sense of how to play. She problem-solved and legitimately exercised control over most — if not all — of the matches she won to make the final.
Crucially, Fernandez’s win over Angelique Kerber came against an opponent who was not in a bad place. Kerber had revived her career — again — and was competing as well as she ever has. She just fought through Sloane Stephens a few days after breaking serve when Dayana Yastremska served for the match against her in the first round. Kerber was in a competitive groove. Fernandez, down a set and 4-2, outplayed her the rest of the way.
Not a fluke.
Are we likely to see Emma Raducanu win nine straight major-tournament matches in straight sets — three of them in the quallies — anytime soon? Probably not. This is an “Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros 2020” run, and that is an outlier. However, the idea that Raducanu won’t continue to succeed is just as premature as the idea that she will win 15 majors. Raducanu has a well-rounded and complete game. She can play low-mistake tennis. She can serve and hit the ball authoritatively. Most of all, she doesn’t get flustered on court. This feels sustainable. It obviously doesn’t guarantee anything, but this just doesn’t feel like anything “lucky” or temporary.
There’s a real chance for both of these players to forge special and prolonged careers at the highest level of the sport. I won’t make any predictions, but they’re playing like seasoned veterans despite their noticeable youth and lack of experience.
This 2021 U.S. Open, on the women’s side, really has broken all the rules. When was the last time so many key tiebreakers and big-pressure moments were all won by the less established player?
Fernandez won crunch-time tiebreakers against Naomi Osaka, Angie Kerber, Elina Svitolina, and Aryna Sabalenka. Shelby Rogers won a deciding tiebreaker against Ashleigh Barty, the World No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion. On the men’s side, Carlos Alcaraz won two crunch-time tiebreakers against Stefanos Tsitsipas. Having experience and major-tournament credentials meant very little at this tournament unless you were Novak Djokovic or Daniil Medvedev.
This tournament broke all the laws of tennis physics, Djokovic being the obvious exception.
The question now looms: Will younger players with nothing to lose continue to grow in confidence in 2022 at the majors and other important tournaments, or are we going to see the veteran cohort plant their flag and make a stand against the youngsters next year?
It will be fascinating to watch, that’s for sure.