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If you were to write down a list of the records Emma Raducanu has set in advancing to the US Open final, there’s a chance it would reach as many points as the 18-year-old has in dropped games in New York. So, for brevity, the key one is this: Raducanu has made tennis history by becoming the first qualifier, male or female, to reach a grand slam final, sealed with an emphatic 6-1, 6-4 win over Maria Sakkari.
“A surprise. A shock. Crazy. All of the above.” No wonder the British star didn’t know what to say when asked to describe what the achievement meant to her. When Raducanu arrived in New York three weeks ago ahead of her first round of qualifying, there was no precedent for a run of this magnitude. As such, Raducanu had booked her return flights to the UK for the end of the qualifying rounds. “Honestly, the time in New York has gone so fast,” she said. “I’ve just been taking care of each day and before you know it, three weeks later, I’m in the final. I can’t believe it.”
Raducanu’s dizzying ascent from her breakthrough week at Wimbledon two months ago to a grand slam final has been matched, spectacularly, with the rapid development of her game on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows. The 18-year-old said she had played the best tennis of her life in reaching the second week of her second appearance at a grand slam and her level has risen even higher with each passing test, as the spotlights at Arthur Ashe have beamed that bit brighter and her opponents have grown in stature.
In the late hours of the night in New York, the gnarly, experienced and fiercely competitive Sakkari was the latest to stand in her way. Raducanu was immediately put on the back foot as the 18-year-old faced a flurry of seven break points across two opening monster service games. Not only did Raducanu save her most aggressive serves and shots of the opening exchanges in order to withstand those tense early moments, but she went on the attack to break Sakkari in consecutive games to start the set.
Not for the first time this tournament, the viciousness of Raducanu’s returns rattled her opponent and Sakkari was left bewildered and frustrated by the onslaught. This was a player who had won 92 per cent of her first-serve points in the previous round against Karolina Pliskova but who was seeing her biggest weapon vanish under the pressure of Raducanu’s attacks, as her first serve percentage dropped to around 50 per cent.
“She’s an unbelievable player, probably one of the best athletes out there on tour,” Raducanu said. “I knew before the match I was going to have to play some of my best tennis if I wanted a chance. I knew I was going to have to be super aggressive and I managed to execute.”
Amid all of the talk of records and history, there is a risk that those fine details of Raducanu’s game, her strategy, execution and general performance in that 6-1 opening set, are glossed over when discussing everything else that surrounds her fairytale run in New York. Indeed, one of the most impressive elements from Raducanu’s semi-final win was that she did not face a single break point as she served to protect her lead in the second set.
Raducanu was the player pushing hard for the further breakthrough in her return games, and the quality of her serves throughout ensured that any moments of anxiety were kept to the bare minimum, within the context of the pressure pot of a US Open semi-final. Her serve out wide to Sakkari’s forehand worked particularly well and was a tactic she used on match point. “She plays fearless, she absolutely goes for it,” Sakkari said in acknowledgement, after admitting that she had been left “broken” by her second grand slam semi-final defeat of the season. “She does the right thing, actually. She has nothing to lose and she’s enjoying herself.”
Raducanu’s attitude is one shared by her upcoming opponent, the 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, in what is set to be a sensational US Open final. It is a dream encounter for the tournament organisers, one that embodies the bold and courageous play of the young stars who have lit up these past two weeks in New York. Raducanu and Fernandez played one another in the second round of junior Wimbledon in 2018, to further illustrate how far they have both come since. (For the record, Raducanu won 6-2, 6-4.)
The Briton spoke openly last week about how the early success of Fernandez, who beat former champion Naomi Osaka in the third round, had motivated her to extend her own journey in New York. But as the two teenagers’ paths have come closer, and with them now set for a collision point, Raducanu has become more guarded. “Today I wasn’t thinking about anyone else except for myself,” she said, as she booked her place in Saturday’s final roughly two hours after Fernandez had pulled off her latest upset win, this time over world No 2 Aryna Sabalenka, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4.
When asked later about the all-teenage final, the first since Serena Williams beat Monica Seles in 1999, Raducanu was similarly reluctant to play into any other narrative than her own personal journey. “Honestly right now I’m just thinking of the game plan. That’s what’s landed me in this situation.”
The message was clear. She still has one more job to do.