NEW YORK — Women’s tennis has seen its fair share of teenagers and prodigies ascend quickly to the top of the game, but Arthur Ashe Stadium will be the stage Saturday for something that’s never happened before in the history of the sport.
While it’s rare that a Grand Slam final will feature two teenagers, it’s not even close to unprecedented. What makes this one unique is that the two teenagers left standing at the end — 19-year old Leylah Fernandez and 18-year old Emma Raducanu — were both complete afterthoughts when the U.S. Open began two weeks ago, so far down the rankings that it would’ve never occurred to any other player in the field that they might be the eventual champion.
To have one such player in a final is extremely rare. To have two is an asteroid strike. Hopefully the tennis world, always far too hungry to anoint the next big superstar, can just sit back and enjoy what’s going to happen here Saturday without the temptation to treat it as anything more.
“It’s great for tennis. It’s obviously great stories,” said Belinda Bencic, the recent Olympic gold medalist who lost to Raducanu in the quarterfinals. “I just really hope that everyone will protect them and will hope the best for them and not try to, you know, put so much pressure and so much hype around them so it just gets too much. I just hope everyone will stay (calm) and will really hope the best for them so they can just develop in peace also a little bit.”
It’s quite possible Fernandez and Raducanu, either of whom will be the youngest Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004, will go on from New York and reproduce the tennis they played here many more times as they mature. But right now, the distance between what they’ve accomplished over six tennis matches here and a career as impactful as Sharapova’s would be more appropriately measured in light years than miles.
It’s worth remembering that when Sharapova broke through at age 17, it was a huge shock to the sport — not just because she beat Serena Williams in the final but because to that point in her career she had accomplished so little. Still, it had been obvious for the previous year she had been progressing toward big things and was seeded 13th in that tournament.
The same foundation being built toward a breakthrough moment does not exist for Fernandez or Raducanu, and yet the arc of the story feels so familiar in many ways. Whether it’s Sharapova or Monica Seles, Steffi Graf or Andrea Jaeger, Naomi Osaka or Jennifer Capriati, life is going to change by orders of magnitude after this.
Some handle it well. Others struggle with the demands that come along with it. You can only hope they have a lot of help to guide them in the right direction.
“This sport is so mental,” said Caty McNally, the 19-year old who will play in the U.S. Open women’s doubles final with 17-year old Coco Gauff on Sunday. “It’s so easy to just kind of lose your passion and fun for it. It’s just really important to have people around you that make it fun day by day. You’re not going to be home. You’re going to be traveling a lot. You want to be around people that you like to be around.”
It’s clear the impact of what Raducanu and Fernandez will soon face hasn’t hit them yet, and won’t perhaps for quite some time. The players obviously understand the gravity of being in a U.S. Open final, but they’re somewhat sheltered here, able to focus only on the tennis match in front of them. When they leave, they’re going to return home to a new world of opportunities, commitments, financial rewards and general fame that they almost certainly haven’t processed yet.
“I give my phone away, like I don’t really check it,” said Raducanu, when asked if she understood the impact she was having in Great Britain. “I’m very appreciative of all the support. But honestly I don’t really realize what’s going on back home because I’ve just been so focused here, keeping it tight and close with my team.”
In one moment that revealed just how different of a world these young women are now living in, Raducanu was asked Friday night to name the trophy she’s won that held the most prominent place in her collection to this point. The answer was a minor league tournament in Pune, India where the total prize money was $25,000. The winner’s check Saturday will be $2.5 million.
But in some ways, the truly lasting careers are built more on the foundation of grinding out low-level tournaments in Pune than on one big result, which may or may not be indicative of anything.
Fernandez’s run here is perhaps most similar Jelena Ostapenko winning the French Open in similar out-of-nowhere fashion as a 19-year old who was ranked 47th. In the four years since, that result is now viewed as a good player who rode a hot streak to a big title, not an indicator of greatness.
Another relatable example is Iga Swiatek, who dominated the French Open held last fall as an unseeded player. Swiatek was so good in that tournament, it looked like she might never lose again. And though the 20-year old has followed it with some solid results, winning the Adelaide International and Italian Open earlier this year, she has talked openly about struggling to live up to the standard she set in Paris.
“I feel the pressure, you know,” she said after her second-round win here. “It’s just hard to describe it, but I think it’s kind of usual of what players have after winning few tournaments for the first time.”
Other things can go wrong, too. When Bianca Andreescu won the U.S. Open in 2019, it was her third big title of the year and it looked like she was on a rocket ship to No. 1. Instead, she spent all of 2020 injured and most of 2021 trying to regain her rhythm and confidence.
And even when a player does live up to the hype after their first breakthrough like Osaka did, the path can still be fraught with mental health challenges.
That’s why it’s best to focus on today and the joy these two women have brought to New York and not burden them with being the future of the sport. Let’s celebrate this remarkable, one-of-a-kind run and not add anything to their plate.
For Fernandez and Raducanu, this singular achievement of getting to a U.S. Open final is all that matters. The rest will take care of itself.