The most unexpected things in sports are also the best.
There are upsets and surprises of varying degrees and then there is something like what happened at the US Open on Saturday, which blows all other shocks out of the water and somehow managed to do so while encompassing a narrative to put a smile on even the sternest of faces.
“What Emma Raducanu achieved in New York is unprecedented, anywhere,” wrote Martin Samuel, of London’s Daily Mail. “She could be no less surprising had she jumped out of the crowd and won the Olympic 100 meters, running barefoot.”
Raducanu, a mere hopeful in the unforgiving world of professional tennis at the start of this year, is now the sport’s most electrifying new superstar, having taken her ranking of 150 for a scarcely believable joyride over the past three weeks, all the way through qualifying, right through to lifting the ultimate prize of a Grand Slam title and a $2.5 million winner’s check.
That she did so with a victory over another youngster known only to hardcore tennis followers, No. 73-ranked 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, only added to the script and enhanced her likability. New York, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, gave their hearts to two young women who were not even born on that terrible morning when everything changed.
At Arthur Ashe Stadium, Raducanu, from Great Britain, won 6-4, 6-3, but this was a contest where the age-old cliché was profoundly appropriate – it was a shame there had to be a loser.
Yet while the memory of an extraordinary tournament will continue to elicit smiles, let’s not diminish the story and the achievement by Hollywood-ifying it. Sure, never before had a qualifier made a final, let alone won a Grand Slam. Never before had two players outside the top 50 reached a final. But this was neither a fluke nor some wild confluence of events.
Raducanu might have enjoyed some small fortune when Jennifer Brady withdrew from her part of the draw and world No. 1 Ash Barty suffered a shocking third round exit. However, she won because, quite simply, she played the best tennis of any woman to step onto the Flushing Meadows courts from the moment the event began to its very conclusion, claiming every match in straight sets.
Fernandez got through to the showcase match with more difficulty, surviving a four-pack of nail-biters against Grand Slam champions Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, plus world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 5 Elina Svitolina.
The matchup in the final felt like a fairytale, but that descriptor doesn’t do it proper justice. It was a wondrous story of two awe-inspiring breakthroughs coming at the same time but it wasn’t some cute little tale of a pair of girls who hit the jackpot.
Raducanu and Fernandez play with a smile on their face but they won because they have outstanding game and true warrior spirit. It is a drastic over-simplification to say that the happy-go-lucky vibe of youth got them through. They fought, Fernandez with a little more growl and fist-pumping, Raducanu with an intense inner-will that prepared her when the moment of truth arrived.
They were there through sacrifice and work and thought and technique, not because of the screenplay version that was just written in the stars. For the past two years, Raducanu has worked on building incredible core strength that allows for a near perfect transfer of power and timing into the ball.
Fernandez moved from Canada to Florida with her family to pursue her dream and has perfected a service style that generates the ideal risk-reward ratio for a player of her height and physique. They’ve trained and trained and worked thousands of hours, and they’ve also figured out how to be smart enough to gain an edge in a game where everyone is looking for one.
There are no half measures in tennis. The WTA Tour is a relentless grind of travel and tournaments around the world. The rankings leaps that are coming now, Raducanu to 23 and Fernandez to 28, mean they will be spared trudging along to low-prize money challenger events to build up their resume. In turn, higher quality opposition and greater expectations await.
“From pretty early on in my life I have dreamed of winning a Grand Slam, you just say these things,” Raducanu said. “But to have the belief I did in actually executing and winning, I can’t believe it.”
We may never see a better story in tennis and it is one that will be hard to top in any sport. But let’s get the tale straight. It was a surprise and it was dramatic and it blew our collective minds, but Raducanu and Fernandez were there not because circumstance shined upon them – but because they deserved to be.
Here’s what others have said …
Sean Gregory, TIME: “If Saturday’s match serves as any indication, the future of tennis couldn’t be brighter.”
Dennis Romero, NBC News: “The two women rocked the tennis world in their climb to the final at Flushing Meadow.”
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: “Huge congratulations to Emma Raducanu. You showed extraordinary skill, poise and guts and we are all hugely proud of you.”