US Open 2021: A star is born as British qualifier Emma Raducanu becomes youngest Briton to win Major
Teenage Emma Raducanu’s victory over 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez was 10th straight-sets win in New York
Almost from the start, the women’s draw at this year’s record-setting US Open brought thrills and spills.
The favourites for the title, No1 Ash Barty and defending champion Naomi Osaka, lost in the third round.
Home favourites Serena and Venus Williams, boasting eight US singles titles between them dating back more than two decades, both pulled out.
A swathe of Major champions and world No1s did not make it past the fourth round: Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza.
In the event, no seeded player at all reached the title match on final Saturday. Instead, it was two teenagers who had knocked out numerous seeds, and garnered huge fan and media attention on their route to a record-making match.
Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu knew each other from junior days but had yet to meet on the main tour. Little wonder: the former only turned 19 during the US Open, the latter was still just 18 and playing only her fourth main-tour event.
The Briton was ranked 338 when she took a wild card into Wimbledon, having first sat and passed her A levels with top grades. She reached the fourth round, then made a strong run at a WTA125 in Chicago just ahead of the US Open.
That earned her a place in qualifying in New York, and from there she took the tournament by storm: three wins to make the main draw, ranked 150, and six more wins to reach the final, the first ever qualifier to do so. What is more, she did not drop a single set, nor even face a tie-break.
Admittedly the main draw opened up nicely when her scheduled first seed, No14 ranked Jennifer Brady, pulled out injured. Indeed Raducanu did not face a seed until the quarters after Shelby Rogers put out the top seed and favourite Barty.
Raducanu nevertheless cruised through three top-50 women, dismissed the in-form Olympic gold medallist and No11 seed, Belinda Bencic, then No18 Maria Sakkari—spending well under an hour and a half in any match.
However, unlike her final opponent, the Briton was yet to face a top-10 player, so while her run from qualifying made Raducanu’s an extraordinary achievement, Fernandez’s run was extraordinary too.
The charismatic Canadian, ranked only 73, had been forced to three sets in her last four matches, including wins over Osaka, Kerber, No5 Elina Svitolina and No2 Aryna Sabalenka.
Suffice to say that, for whoever went on to win the title and the $2.5 million champion’s prize, life would never be the same again, in a contest that already broke new ground: the first Major final, men or women, featuring unseeded players since the Open Era began in 1968.
The Briton opened confidently with a tidy hold, and then went after the Fernandez serve, going 0-40 up. She attacked both side lines, and although the Canadian’s defence-turned-attack was outstanding to save those three, plus two more break points, she was finally broken at the sixth attempt after more than 10 minutes: 2-0.
Both were gripping the baseline and striking clean and deep, with angle and pace. Fernandez hit straight back, forcing multiple deuces and break points, finally getting the break back after eight minutes. The Canadian went on to make a much easier hold, 2-2.
They had played almost half an hour already, and had 20 points each. The deep, probing shot-making continued, each trying to take the initiative. Both faced pressure on serve but resisted: 4-4, 33 points apiece.
Raducanu had the edge by serving first, and so was able to apply still more pressure as Fernandez served to save the set. The Briton upped the intensity still further for two set points, but her opponent responded in kind. It took two more break chances before Raducanu got the breakthrough for the set, 6-4, with a blistering forehand winner.
That meant, too, that she served first in the second set. Raducanu held that first game comfortably, and then earned three straight break chances. However, Fernandez swept five straight points to hold, and the roar of the Arthur Ashe fans only emphasized where their support lay.
The Canadian was on the run, and went after her opponent’s serve, working break chances with some fierce strikes that out-paced the Briton: She took the lead, 2-1, but not for long. Raducanu took a huge swing-volley winner for break point, and made an angled backhand winner to level.
She then fired off another backhand winner, then a forehand winner, and pulled off the pass of the match to break, 4-2. She held with ease, producing her best tennis of the tournament at the most significant moment. Raducanu worked match point against the Canadian, but Fernandez battled hard to stave it off, smiled at the crowd, and made the Briton serve it out.
As if there was not enough drama, Raducanu drew blood on her knee as the Canadian earned break point, and there was a medical delay. The Briton, though, came back to save it, and another, before ultimately firing an ace on her third match point.
It had been outstanding, riveting and inspiring—from both young women. But it is worth reiterating to the tennis world that this 18 year old Briton won 20 straight sets in her 10 matches, becoming the first man or woman to lift a Major trophy from the qualifying ranks.
She is also the first British woman to win at Flushing Meadows since Virginia Wade in 1968, and the youngest Briton to win a Major title.
And along with a life-changing $2.5 million in prize money, she will surely become the face of British tennis. Her leap to No23 in the ranks ensures she is now the top-ranked woman here, and when even HRH the Queen sends congratulations, there is no going back.
· British duo Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewett became the first men to win all four wheelchair Major double titles in the same year. They beat Gustavo Fernandez and Shingo Kunieda, 6-2, 6-1.
· Briton Joe Salisbury became the first Briton to win two doubles titles at a Major in the Open era by winning the mixed doubles title a day after winning the men’s doubles. Salisbury and Desirae Krawczyk beat Giuliana Olmos and Marcelo Arevalo, 7-5, 6-2, after beating Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares with Rajeev Ram in the men’s final.