The audacity of youth

From street tennis to a fairy tale in New York

Shortly before 3 am today (UK time), a beaming teenager became the youngest woman this century to get to the final of the US Open tennis. Less than two hours later, she had lost that record to Emma Raducanu. In Saturday’s final, Raducanu will face an opponent, Leylah Fernandez, who is just two months older than her. (Fernandez was passing out cupcakes to celebrate her 19th birthday on Tuesday. She will have to wait until November if she expects Raducanu to return the favour.)

Like many, I first became aware of the amazing and delightful Raducanu during this year’s Wimbledon. I was captivated by the sheer joy with which she played and her own apparent astonishment at some of the winners she was able to hit. When pushed deep and wide, beyond the edges of the court, she was able to find an angle and a trajectory that reminded me of Bjorn Borg in his prime. Raducanu’s astonished looks have now diminished in frequency. Not because she hits fewer outstanding winners. It’s just that she no longer has any reason to be surprised when opponents fail to deal with the thunderbolts from her racquet.

Fernandez – another truly charismatic sportswoman in her own way – had remained unknown to me for even longer. Despite playing in all three previous grand slam tournaments this year, she had managed only as many matches (four) as Raducanu had played in her solo entry at Wimbledon.

It’s hard to decide who, of the two finalists, has made the more surprising progress over the past two weeks. Fernandez is the higher-ranked of the two players (at least until close of play on Saturday!), entering the tournament at 73, compared with Raducanu’s 150. But Fernandez has faced – and overcome (obviously) – the second, third and fifth seeds to get this far. Raducanu, by comparison, has had the easier journey, not having to face anyone in the top 10. And, whilst Fernandez had been knocked-out in all three previous grand slams, Raducanu has yet even to face a match point and has dropped only one set. Her Wimbledon departure followed medical advice when (as she put it herself) the “whole experience caught up with me”.

As we keep being reminded, Raducanu had to play three qualifying matches just to get into the first round in New York. She had her flight back home booked for the end of qualification week. Was that a sign of poor self-belief? Perhaps. But I prefer to believe it was an excellent bit of expectation management by someone on her team.

She is now the first qualifier ever to reach the final of a grand slam. That could quite plausibly be a record that is never beaten – unless there is another pandemic. Unlike many players, Raducanu chose not to play any competitive tennis for 15 months from 1 March 2020 until 6 June 2021. Whilst Fernandez was playing 18 tournaments and building her ranking up from 190 to 66, earning the automatic right to enter grand slams, Raducanu was practising in the street (causing some neighbours to fear for their windows!), leaving her with a ranking that was too low to earn her a ticket into Round 1 of the US Open.

Whilst writing this article, I re-watched Emma Raducanu’s on-court interview after her first-round victory. She said she was excited to see how far she could go in the tournament. You and millions of others, Emma.

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