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US Open 2021 Women's Final Special Preview

TEENAGERS SET THE TENNIS WORLD ON FIRE

Wow! That is all one can say. The US Open Women’s Singles final is going to be contested between a just turned 19-year old, and a yet-to-turn 19-year old. Two players ranked #73 and #150 will play for the crown!! 

We have spoken earlier of how women’s tennis has shown a lot of fragmentation, even as men’s tennis has gone through a period of amazing stability going back almost 14 years!! This tournament has been no different – in men’s it is all about whether a 34-year-old can make history – in the women’s, the four semi-finalists had all never made a slam final before, let alone winning it. The two finalists combined age is only marginally more than the age of the Men’s favorite, Djokovic.

This tournament has also been a poster for globalization. Leylah Annie Fernandez, 18 at the start of the Open, born in Montreal, to parents of Ecuadorian and Filippino origin. Her opponent, Emma Raducanu, 18 years old, born in Toronto, to parents of Romanian and Chinese heritage, moved to Britain when she was two. Quite the melting pot right here with a coincidental Canada connection.

FROM DEBUT TO THE US OPEN FINAL IN FOUR MONTHS

It is a remarkable story that these two are here at all. Emma Raducanu played her first-ever tour level tournament at Nottingham this June. She became famous when she made the 4th round at Wimbledon after receiving a wild card into the tournament. She then retired with breathing difficulty, which looked a bit to me atleast, as though the nervous tension brought about by the occasion had overwhelmed her. (No offence meant, simply observing what it looked like – Judy Murray and other commentators please note). At this point she had achieved some wonderful wins over the World #41 and Grand Slam finalist Vondrusova and the World #45 Cirstea. But it could have been a flash in the pan.

There is another tale here. The Nottingham WTA tournament she made her debut in (also through a wildcard) ended straightaway in defeat when she lost her debut match to Harriet Dart. At the time, she was refused the Wimbledon main draw wildcard based on her low ranking. She then played the ITF tournament in Nottingham (which is a rung lower) and beat WTA veteran Timea Babos (who has been ranked as high as #25), causing the Wimbledon organizers to revise their decision and award her a wildcard the main draw. Almost 500 British players have received a wildcard into Wimbledon since these were introduced in 1977. Only 18 have gone past the 2nd round. Emma made it to the 4th.

Post-Wimbledon, Raducanu has played a couple of ITF tournaments, reaching the final most recently at Chicago in August where she lost to the even younger Clara Tauson. Her only other tour level match at San Jose ended in defeat to Shuai Zhang.

With a ranking of 150, she had to play the qualifying rounds at Flushing Meadows. A qualifier has a pretty daunting task, they have to play 3 matches before they make the main draw, then they frequently face a seeded player and often lose at that point itself. If they are lucky enough to make it past the first round without playing a seed, almost always a seed awaits them in the next round. This Open saw six of the 16 qualifiers make the 2nd round. None of the six beat a seeded player. In the 2nd round five of the six survivors lost to seeded players. The remaining qualifier, Raducanu, was the only one not playing a seeded player and she continued to go through.

Raducanu did not play a single-seeded player till the quarter-finals. At this stage she had won seven straight matches (3 in qualifying and 4 in the main draw) without dropping a set. While it appears she was lucky in not meeting a seeded player, she had beaten 3 players ranked in the forties including her conqueror in San Jose – Zhang. While not too bad, not too many gave her a chance in the Quarters where she finally met a seed, the 11th ranked Belinda Bencic, who was coming off an Olympic Gold Medal and had easily beaten 2020 French Open winner and #7 seed, Iga Swiatek, in straight sets in the previous round. 

And now we are here two matches later. Emma has beaten two seeded players and has not yet dropped a set. She is the first-ever qualifier, man or woman, to make a Slam final in the open era. Talk about a blazing entry into the centre stage!!!

THE LATEST CANADIAN PHENOMENON

Leylah Annie Fernandez, from my favorite tennis nation of Canada, is a little different. She has been talked up quite a lot for some time now by the pundits, as the next real thing. With Canada having produced Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger–Aliassime (who is currently in the men’s semi-final here) and Bianca Andreescu in quick order one was keen to take a closer look at the next “big thing” from the land of the maple leaf.

Unfortunately given the schedule, the courts that up and coming players are put on, the TV coverage ( restricted to show courts) despite my best effort, I have not been able to watch her playing live. YouTube highlights never give you the same perspective. There is another story one needs to write about how Tennis is underserving its fans here.

Her results, while she has steadily climbed up the ranks, did not inspire any great confidence. In the slams so far she has lost in the 1st round of the Australian, both times she played, she lost at Wimbledon in the 1st round this year, and in the 2nd round of the US Open last year. In the Olympics this year she lost in the 2nd round. Only at the French Open, has she done slightly better, making the 3rd round at the winter games of 2020 and the 2nd round this year. 

This however is the danger in assessing a player that is so young, based on past results. The game of a 17-year-old or 18-year-old matures by orders of magnitude every 3 months. Losing to players like Kenin, Kvitova, Keys, Ostapenko, Krejcikova at the age of 18 even in straight sets may not indicate what the player is going to turn into (hmm……maybe players with family names starting with K have a hex over Leylah!! 😊 Just kidding). Iga Swiatek in 2019 suffered losses of 6-1, 6-0 to Halep (at Roland Garros), 6-0, 6-2 to Ostapenko, 6-0, 6-3 to Stosur and 6-2, 6-0 to Giorgi. Yet within a year she was handing out those kind of results to her opponents on a regular basis.

Still recent form did not indicate anything about what was to come – in Montreal Fernandez lost to Harriet Dart (Ms Dart makes a 2nd appearance in this column 😊) in the first round in straight sets. At Cinncinati she had to qualify and lost to Alison Riske 6-2, 6-2 in the first round. At the Olympics, Krejcikova beat her 6-2,6-4 in the 2nd round. With this background, one did not really expect her to go too far at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre.

Raducanu had a run to the quarters before she met her first seed, and has not played a Top 10 ranked player or a player who has reached a Slam Final yet. Fernandez had quite a different route. She met #3 and 4-time slam winner Osaka in the 3rd round, 16th seed and 3-time slam winner Kerber in the 4th, World #5 Year-end Final winner and Olympic Bronze medalist Svitolina in the quarters and finally today she played the World #2 Sabalenka. She has beaten them all. Not in straight sets but she has beaten them all. She has been calm and collected and has shown tremendous maturity. I am amazed at barely 19, she knows just what to say in the on court interviews. Raducanu who is reputed to have aced her A levels this year is also very good at this. Two kids with a head far above their years it appears.

PREDICTION FOR THE FINAL

And so finally who will win this unprecedented encounter? In sports, only fools venture their neck out and predict results, but let’s try and break it down a bit. 

Given that Emma is here without having dropped a set and has shown some amazing tennis, she has her legitimate claim to being the favorite. She has spent the lowest time on court of the four semifinalists at only 7 hours and 41 minutes. Leylah on the other hand has spent a full five hours more on court. This would definitely make her more likely to be weary. However these numbers only refer to the main draw, one has to remember that Raducanu would have spent possibly another 3 odd hours on court while qualifying including the sheer grind of having now played nine matches.

However, both are teenagers and the prospect of holding aloft the trophy should pump in enough adrenalin to make weariness moot!!!

Both players have a solid game and athleticism. Raducanu’s strengths are in her amazing vision of the court. She seems to know exactly where to put the ball and how to move her opponent around much like a chess master boxing the opponent in and then swooping away from the opponent’s pieces. The way she plays though speed chess would be a better analogy. But clearly, a thinking player who is constantly outwitting her opponent. She also has a decently paced serve to back this up and will be formidable in the final.

Fernandez with her short backswing returns takes time away from her opponents and absorbs their pace very well. She also has the ability to change direction often and uses the court very well. Her greatest strength though I believe is her fierce desire to win. She really wants to win, and is confident in her abilities. She also seems aware that even if she loses, her time will surely come. Many players have an intense desire to win, but that can sometimes get in their way and tighten them up (Sascha Zverev definitely comes to mind). Leylah seems able to compartmentalize and play only the point and not the score. She was down against Osaka, who was serving for the match. She was in a 3rd set tie-breaker with Svitolina. But she never once backed down. She did not wait for the opponent to make mistakes. Today, with Sabalenka starting explosively in the first set – the opening 20 points went 14 to Aryna, 6 to Leylah. Yet serving in the next game, she did not falter and won at love with four unreturned serves, including a 2nd serve ace.

Honestly, the true answer is one does not know who will win. There is no obvious answer from what we have seen so far. I believe Fernandez has a slight edge having just played more matches, but if Raducanu can keep putting the ball behind her as she has done to Bencic and Sakkari, and also play as freely as she has so far, I would not count her out. It promises to be a real humdinger of a final.

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