By Jane Voigt
Just as the world’s landscape has changed over the last 18 months, so has the landscape in tennis. That transformation didn’t take as long — only three weeks — and it all happened in Flushing Meadows, New York, at the U.S. Open.
Eighteen-year-old Emma Raducanu pulled off a miracle, winning the U.S. Open title as a qualifier, a first among men and women playing in the Open Era (1968). She is the true pioneer of this season-ending Grand Slam event; in a larger context, she is the most valuable player in tennis.
We can insert all the superlatives necessary to communicate the point of her achievement. They all count. She never played at the Open. She’s a teenager (18) competing in a tennis era when longevity of play has produced iconic champions, unlike 1999 when Serena Williams and Martina Hingis, 17 and 18 at the time, battled for the title in New York, Serena coming out on top for her first of 23 Grand Slam titles.
Emma has no WTA Tour titles. In fact, she’s played in only three tour tournaments, all in 2021 (if you include a WTA 125 event), plus three Wimbledon appearances where in two (2018, 2019) she never made it out of qualification. This year at Wimbledon, though, we got a glimpse of a player who could storm the castle and singularly defeat those in her way because, simply put, she did. She took out Marketa Vondrousova (2019 Roland Garros finalist), Sorana Cirstea, a top-50 veteran having the season of her life, before retiring in the round of 16 due to breathing problems against Ajla Tomljanovic.
Emma, additionally, did not drop a set through the final in New York, which adds up to 10 rounds of successful competition. We could conclude that she pulled off the greatest achievement ever in our sport.
On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic came to New York with the biggest mission and the heaviest cross to bear. He wanted to win a calendar-year Grand Slam while surpassing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 21 major titles. He wanted to carve his own brand of victory in the history books, becoming the first male since 1969 (Rod Laver) to accomplish that. Yet unlike Emma, playing freely and dauntingly brilliant tennis, Novak succumbed to pressure, illustrating his main challenge for any elite athlete: nerves. He proved they are not made of steel.
“My legs were not there,” Djokovic told the press. “Too many unforced errors. But that’s sport. You win some and lose some.”
His loss altered tennis in different ways than Emma’s victory did. Daniil Medvedev, the No. 2 seed and second-highest ranked player in the world, emphasized a transition begun most recently in 2020 when Dominic Thiem won the Open, defeating Alexander Zverev.
“The transition was inevitable,” Djokovic told the press, after his 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss. “[Us] older guys are hanging on. I want to win more Grand Slams.”
Medvedev’s and Raducanu’s victories, then, put a full stop on an express train named The Big Three Plus Serena. Due to injuries, Federer and Nadal didn’t play this year in New York, as was the case for Venus and Serena Williams, making this Open a first since 1997 when none of them played. All together they’d won 17 Open singles championship titles since 1999, Serena the first. Additionally, The Big Three from 2003-2021 rang up 60 Grand Slam titles, 20 each. That’s 18 years of dominance. In other words, a closed-door policy.
Sport always breaks through to alter the landscape of battle, no matter the field. But this U.S. Open laid bare something more complicated, which introduced a new normal in the sport … the end of what many call The Golden Age of Tennis.
“The new generation is the current test,” Djokovic added. “Tennis is in good hands.”
Raducanu’s influence literally turned women’s tennis upside down yet it landed in the exact spot necessary for a new generation of players. She did it 22 years after Serena toppled Martina. The title was Serena’s first Grand Slam trophy, just as this one was Raducanu’s first Grand Slam championship. That’s where the similarities stop. In 1999, Serena and Martina had established themselves as leaders in women’s tennis. Hingis, in fact, was about to leave the limelight with five majors in tow. In contrast, Raducanu came out of nowhere the way a genius suddenly appears with all the fresh skills of a transcendent talent.
“At the beginning of the grass courts I was coming fresh off my exams,” Raducanu told the press. “I had three weeks to practice before my first tournament. Then after Wimbledon, fourth round, second week, I couldn’t believe it. But I was still hungry and working hard after the grass and then straight off to the States. To pull off everything I did [here] was an accumulation of everything I did in the past five weeks.”
Five weeks of “working hard” rewarded with a Grand Slam championship is not normal.
“Rafael Nadal needed 41 tournaments before he won his first teenage major championship. Emma Raducanu needed three tournaments,” tennis journalist Matt Zemek wrote on Twitter.
(Editor’s note: The tweet initially said two; we’ve corrected it to three main-draw tournaments at the main-tour level, not including 125s: Nottingham, Wimbledon, and San Jose.)
Ranked 150 in the world three weeks ago, she woke Monday morning to a new WTA Tour ranking: 23. A leap up the ranks like that, having gone 10 rounds without dropping a set, is unprecedented. Life on tour has completely transformed because of Emma Raducanu and, as an extra measure, Leylah Fernandez, the runner-up.
“The duo’s journey to the title match in New York has made it brazenly clear that there is more than one way to the top of the game,” ITFtennis.com wrote.
They inspired thousands, allowing them to dream of unimaginable heights.
“Saturday night’s celebration of youth and fearlessness in New York,” the ITF continued, “also delivered with it an overwhelming feeling of empowerment for girls and women [not to mention boys and men equally inspired by their achievements].”
When the 2020 defending U.S. Open Champion Dominic Thiem returns to tennis, he will experience a new landscape. Novak Djokovic will still be number one and Daniil Medvedev will remain number two. However, only Nadal, at number 7 this week, and Federer at number 9, remind us of a Golden Age nearing its end. Thiem will now compete more frequently with the new generation, just as Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka, the top two women, will have to face Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu.