NEW YORK (AP) — Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez are so similar in so many ways: They possess enviable quickness and anticipation. They take balls low to the ground and redirect them with ease. They love the big moment. They don’t care how much better-known or more successful opponents are.
There's more. They’re both teenagers. They’re both unseeded at the U.S. Open. They’re both getting loud backing from the crowds. And now, remarkably, they’re both Grand Slam finalists.
Raducanu, an 18-year-old from Britain who is ranked 150th, and Fernandez, a 19-year-old from Canada who is ranked 73rd, took wildly different paths to the championship match at Flushing Meadows on Thursday night. They’ll be back in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday for the first major final between two teens since the 1999 U.S. Open, when Serena Williams, 17, defeated Martina Hingis, 18.
Raducanu became the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final in the professional era by overwhelming 17th-seeded Maria Sakkari 6-1, 6-4. Appearing in just her second major tournament, Raducanu won all 18 sets she has played during three matches in qualifying rounds and six in the main draw.
“The time here in New York has gone so fast. I've just been taking care of each day,” Raducanu said, “and before you know it, three weeks later, I'm in the final and I can't believe it.”
Quickly, Raducanu was up 5-0 against French Open semifinalist Sakkari and nothing really changed from there. Sakkari earned seven break points in that span; Raducanu got three. The difference? Sakkari couldn’t convert any; Raducanu took advantage of two chances — or, better, accepted her opponent’s generosity on two of them, once with a netted backhand, once with a double-fault.
By the end, Raducanu made just 17 unforced errors to Sakkari’s 33 and now is the youngest Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at age 17 in 2004.
Fernandez isn’t much older — her birthday was Monday — and she made it through a semifinal filled with momentum swings to edge No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4.
At the outset, Sabalenka looked in control, claiming 12 of the first 14 points for a 3-0 lead. Just eight minutes had elapsed and most spectators were yet to reach their seats. Not until later did the 20,000-plus in the stands rally the fist-aloft Fernandez with chants of “Let’s go, Leylah! Let’s go!” accompanied by rhythmic clapping.
“I’m glad that whatever I’m doing on court, the fans are loving it — and I’m loving it, too,” Fernandez said. “We’ll say it’s magical.”
At the end of the first set and again the third, it was Sabalenka, a Wimbledon semifinalist in July, who let things get away from her. In the last game, she double-faulted twice in a row to set up match point, then sailed a forehand long.
“This,” Sabalenka said, “is what we call pressure.”
No matter what, seemingly, Fernandez did not feel it. Didn’t waver. And why would she at this point? Her poise, much like Raducanu’s, is as limitless as their potential.
This was the left-handed Fernandez’s fourth consecutive three-set victory over a seeded opponent. First came No. 3 Naomi Osaka, the 2018 and 2020 U.S. Open champion. Then came No. 16 Angelique Kerber, the 2016 champ. That was followed by No. 5 Elina Svitolina and Sabalenka.
“There’s no limit to what I can do. I’m just glad that right now everything’s going well,” said Fernandez, who could give Canada its second U.S. Open women’s title in quick succession, following Bianca Andreescu’s triumph in 2019.
Raducanu and Fernandez are both very much citizens of the world.
Raducanu was born in Toronto to a Chinese mother and Romanian father; the family moved to England when Emma was 2.
Fernandez was born in Montreal to a Filipino Canadian mother and Ecuadorian father; the family moved to Florida after Leylah had success as a junior at age 12. Dad is also her coach, although he is not with her in New York, instead offering coaching tips in daily phone conversations.
Perhaps he told his daughter to let Sabalenka make all the mistakes in a tiebreaker, because that’s what happened at the conclusion of the first set. Sabalenka went up 2-0 and then completely lost her way.
“I wouldn’t say that she did something,” Sabalenka said. “I would say that I destroy myself.”
Every point won by Fernandez came courtesy of a miss by Sabalenka, including a flubbed overhead that landed several feet long and a double-fault to hand over a set point. A backhand return into the net — Sabalenka’s fourth miss when replying to a second serve in the tiebreaker — ended the set to roars from the crowd.
It was the sort of lapse that contributed to Sabalenka never getting past the fourth round in her first 15 Grand Slam appearances.
In the second set, Sabalenka regained her form and Fernandez took a step back. Fernandez was two games from victory, serving at 4-all in the second, when she sailed a backhand beyond the baseline to get broken. Sabalenka held at love, and on to a third set they went.
And that, of course, was Fernandez’s time to shine. This is only her seventh Grand Slam appearance — impossible as that is to tell.
“Now she’s like (a) top-10 player,” Sabalenka said. “We’ll see how good she will be in the future.”
On Saturday, Raducanu and Fernandez will meet for the first time in a tour-level match. Their most recent encounter came in the Wimbledon junior tournament's second round in 2018.
Raducanu won that one. A little more than three years later, they'll play again, on a grander stage and with much, much more at stake.
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Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press