New Delhi: A ripping ace out wide on the ad-court is what it took for 18-year-old Emma Raducanu to make history at the US Open early Sunday morning, as she became the first qualifier to not only get to a Grand Slam final but also win it in the Open Era of tennis.
The Brit’s opponent in the final was 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez, who had knocked out heavyweights such as defending champion Naomi Osaka and former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber. The finalists are so young, in fact, that they cannot even celebrate with an alcoholic drink in New York City, because the legal age for that is 21.
Though the final scoreline read 6-4, 6-3 in favour of Raducanu, it wasn’t as one-sided as one would think — there were long rallies, ripping serves and equally sharp returns from Fernandez too.
As Fernandez walked over to congratulate Raducanu, who had fallen to the ground after winning, the two embraced and the crowd at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, draped in the colours of the British and Canadian flags, roared. Throughout the match, the audience of 23,000 kept chanting ‘Let’s go Emma’ and ‘Let’s go Leylah’, showing its excitement at the displays the two unseeded women put on leading up to and during the final. The applause for Fernandez after the match was so loud that she was unable to speak for a good couple of minutes.
Shaped by mixed heritage
Both the finalists were actually born in Canada — Fernandez in Montreal, and Raducanu in Toronto before her family moved to the United Kingdom.
Their mixed heritage is another point of commonality, with both players saying their heritage has shaped their game and career.
Raducanu’s mother Renee is Chinese and her father Ian is of Romanian heritage. She was only two years old when the family moved to England. Fernandez’s father Jorge, meanwhile, is a former professional football player from Ecuador, while her mother Irene was born to Filipino-origin parents in Canada.
“I think that the calmness and the mental strength definitely comes from my upbringing. I think my parents have both instilled in me from a very young age to definitely have a positive attitude on court, because when I was younger, it was definitely an absolute no-go if I had any sort of bad attitude. So from a young age, I definitely learnt that, and it’s followed me until now,” Raducanu had said in an earlier interview.
Her game features ripping ground strokes and the ability to tire out opponents from corner to corner, hitting the ball with precision and power. She believes all this comes out of the self-belief and work-ethic her parents instilled in her.
In the same interview for British Vogue, she explained: “My mum comes from a Chinese background, they have very good self-belief. It’s not necessarily about telling everyone how good you are, but it’s about believing it within yourself. I really respect that about the culture.”
Raducanu’s parents, who both work in the financial services, wanted her to finish her education, and during the Covid lockdown last year, she focussed on school, getting As in both maths and economics.
Fernandez, whose younger sister Bianca is also a tennis player, is also inspired by her parents and their struggle. She persisted with tennis despite being told at a young age by a coach to give up the game because she would never amount to anything.
The family had to pawn off jewellery and watches to fund her tennis training and travel, but she stuck to her dream of going pro and winning big tournaments.
“When you are asking your children to work hard and sacrifice, you have to show that you are willing to do the same thing…We sold our house, I sold my business. These are the things you do to help your children reach their dreams”, said Jorge Fernandez to the New York Times in an earlier interview.
Another aspect of their heritage both Raducanu and Fernandez take inspiration from are sporting icons — while Fernandez turns to former Barcelona footballer and current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, Raducanu looks within the sport of tennis itself, to Romania’s Simona Halep and China’s Li Na, both of whom have won two grand slam titles each.
What it means for women’s tennis
For a long time now, women’s tennis hasn’t seen a dominant player or a close rivalry like the men’s side has had among Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Naomi Osaka is gaining popularity as the world No.1 and the winner of four grand slams in four years, but she is one of 13 women to have won at this level since the last dominant woman player, Serena Williams, captured the last of her 23 grand slam titles at the Australian Open in 2017.
This has led to some loss of interest among casual fans, but it is precisely this lack of dominant players at the top that produced the final between Raducanu and Fernandez. In some ways, the women’s draw of the US Open this time was more accessible, because of the underdog dynamics that made both the finalists easy to root for.
“Every player in the draw has a shot at winning a Grand Slam,” said Raducanu when asked about the future of women’s tennis as she lifted the trophy and collected $2.5 million in prize money. And she showed it was no flash in the pan, because in all the 10 rounds she played at Flushing Meadows, she did not drop a single set.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)