Emma Raducanu Defeats Leylah Fernandez for the U.S. Open Title

ImageEmma Raducanu after winning the women’s singles final at the U.S. Open.
Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Emma Raducanu, the 18-year-old British phenom, completed a shocking run through the U.S. Open with a straight-sets victory over Leylah Fernandez of Canada on Saturday for a title that will surely go down as one of the great underdog journeys in the history of sports.

Raducanu, ranked 150th in the world and barely known two weeks ago, became the first player to win a Grand Slam title after surviving the qualifying tournament, a scenario that may very well never be repeated. She also became the first woman from Britain to win a Grand Slam singles title since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977.

And she did it the way she had handled every other match she played in New York, where she did not lose a set in 10 matches, a remarkable 20-set streak and another feat that is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Saturday’s score line was a clean 6-4, 6-3. “An absolute dream,” Raducanu called it.

Raducanu’s game, a rare mix of power and precision, proved too much for Fernandez, a quick and fearless counterpuncher who possesses deceptive power as well. On Saturday afternoon, though, in front of a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium where the crowd blanketed both players with love, Fernandez simply ran out of points and punches, as Raducanu’s laserlike shots to the deepest parts of the court kept landing just beyond the Canadian teenager’s reach.

After a tight first set, during which both players had chances to grab the early lead, Raducanu surged toward the finish line in the sixth game of the second set, breaking Fernandez’s serve by blocking what looked like a sure putaway with a screeching forehand down the line.

Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Ever the fighter, Fernandez saved two match points as she served at 2-5 to keep the match going. In the next game, she sent Raducanu sprawling to the ground, as she chased Fernandez’s shot deep to the corner. But Raducanu settled herself during a medical timeout to get a cut on her leg bandaged, and five points later finished off the match with an ace. She collapsed on the court as the stadium exploded.

“I was just praying not for a double-fault,” Raducanu would say of the finish, just before she became the unlikeliest lifter of a Grand Slam trophy that tennis has ever seen.

Queen Elizabeth even chimed in, sending out a statement from Balmoral Castle praising Raducanu for “a remarkable achievement at such a young age.”

This was the rarest of finals, a contest between two players known only to the most faithful of tennis fans two weeks ago.

They had played once before, in the Wimbledon junior tournament in 2018. Raducanu won that match in straight sets as well. But two years ago, Raducanu was pretty sure her path would lead to college and a career in finance. She took her entrance exams earlier this year, around the time that she was playing in the lower tier tournaments that earned her a wild-card entry into Wimbledon, where she made her Grand Slam debut. This was her first summer of top-level competition.

Fernandez, who turned 19 this week and is ranked 73rd, was until a few days ago known as little more than a scrappy, undersized battler. Few had predicted greatness for her. Some years back, a teacher told her to give up the game because she would never amount to anything.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

For tennis, their stunning journeys to the final could not have come at a better time. The sport had landed in an awkward spot in the weeks leading up to this U.S. Open. Novak Djokovic arrived in New York trying to accomplish the rarest of tennis feats, winning all four Grand Slam tournaments in a calendar year, but most of the game’s biggest stars had fallen off the map. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal announced they were skipping the tournament because of injuries, as did Serena and Venus Williams.

Then, on the first Friday night of the tournament, Naomi Osaka, the reigning champion and the biggest new star in tennis, lost to Fernandez in three sets and announced that she planned to leave the sport indefinitely. The game, she said, was no longer bringing her joy. Osaka spoke in the spring of battling depression since winning her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in 2018.

Once more, the dark side of the sport, a lonely, pressure-filled crucible often endured by young talents not ready to handle it, had burst into the open.

Then along came Raducanu and Fernandez, two bright lights whose lineages span four continents. They delighted crowds with rousing victories and unique styles. After every win, Raducanu said she could not believe what had just happened, while Fernandez said how strongly she believed she could not lose, even if she had no right to think that way as she plowed through one highly ranked player after the next.

Here was something all too rare on the tennis court — unadulterated joy from athletes playing loose and free, without any baggage from missed opportunities of the past, or the pressure that comes with success and the weight of expectations.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

The tired cliché in sports is that it is often a shame that one player has to lose. Given where Raducanu and Fernandez were just two weeks ago, as they emerged to captivate the tennis world and millions in their countries and elsewhere who rarely pay attention to the sport, it was simply impossible that either of them — or tennis itself — would come away from this experience having not won.

There was a moment late in the match Saturday when the crowd of about 23,000 simultaneously chanted, “Let’s Go Emma!” and “Let’s Go Leylah!” with some fans alternating names with each round. When does that happen?

They had taken such different routes to reach this stage, with Raducanu blazing through her solid but not quite spectacular opponents, and Fernandez surviving all those near-death experiences against Osaka, and then the three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber, and then Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka, two of the top five players in the world.

Coming into the final, Raducanu spoke of treating it like just another match. Fernandez was not shy about talking about the opportunity that was before her. Her father, Jorge, who is her coach, said Saturday that he would talk to his daughter about how this was not just another match.

“It’s a finals, all right,” Jorge Fernandez said in a teleconference from Florida because he did not accompany his daughter to the tournament, preferring that her mother, sister and fitness coach attend instead. “Let’s sweat it all out. Let’s make sure that no matter how it finishes, there are no regrets because we won’t get another crack at this again, if we’re fantastic, for another year.”

As it turned out, the bigger winner turned out to be Raducanu, who got over her early jitters to grab the first lead at 2-0, only to see Fernandez quickly scramble back and knot the set at two games each. From there, the match settled into a tense rhythm with long games and long points.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

With Fernandez serving at 4-5, Raducanu tightened the vise with two killer crosscourt backhands to secure two set points. Fernandez would save those, as well as a third, but on the fourth one Raducanu fired a forehand down the line to take her 19th consecutive set.

“I made too many mistakes in the crucial moments,” Fernandez said later. “This loss, I’m going to carry it for a very long time.”

In the second set Fernandez was wobbly in the first points, then surged to a lead, then fell back, and it looked as if Raducanu was going to roll through, but each time Fernandez teetered on the edge, she came up with another scorching forehand, or stretched for a lob to extend the rally and get Raducanu to make one more untimely error. She would make 25 on the day. It happens when you are 18 and playing in the final of a Grand Slam for the first time, and it’s only your second Grand Slam.

But Raducanu broke through in the pivotal sixth game, and the only question was whether her teenage nerves would be steely enough to handle the pressure of closing out the tournament.

At first, they absolutely were as she raced to get two match points on Fernandez’s serve, but the error bug bit her again, and on they went to one of the strangest final games a Grand Slam final has ever seen, and to a deuce point that left blood dripping down Raducanu’s leg.

It was a moment that might have panicked the most veteran of players, or caused one as inexperienced as Raducanu to try to rush to the finish. Two months ago, during what looked to everyone like a panic attack, she quit in the middle of her fourth round match at Wimbledon, telling the trainers she was having trouble breathing.

Instead, as Raducanu faced break point on Saturday and a chance for Fernandez to get the set back on serve, she took a slow walk to her chair and called for the trainer. There, Raducanu got the bandage on her leg, absorbed what was unfolding and let it pass. With Fernandez questioning a tournament official about whether the injury really required a stoppage in play, Raducanu cooled herself with the air conditioning tube, then walked back onto the court a few minutes later, ready to meet her moment.

When it was finished, Raducanu said something that so many have said before her, but no one ever truly believed, even those who have said it.

“Every single player in the women’s draw has a shot at winning any tournament,” she said.

After Saturday, no one could argue with her.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

At the end of her remarks during the trophy ceremony, Fernandez acknowledged the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. “I hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the past 20 years,” she said. “Thank you for always having my back, thank you for always cheering for me.”

Raducanu also thanked the raucous crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium, which had been locked out of last year’s event because of coronavirus restrictions. She said she worked to maintain her composure after scraping her left leg during the final game and needing an injury timeout. “Just staying in the moment, focusing on what I had to do, the process, the mindset, really helped in those tough times,” she said.

Two match points saved by Fernandez at 2-5 in the second set. She holds and now Raducanu will serve for the title.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

Defensive lobs from BOTH players in the same point. It’s a revival.

After going down an early break in the second set, Emma Raducanu has reeled off four straight games to put herself just one game from completing perhaps the most improbable major title in history. She leads, 5-2.

Though this would be a straightforward win if there are no more twists in store, it is already the longest match Raducanu has played in her methodical march through the main draw; none of the previous matches extended past an hour and 25 minutes.

Raducanu in prime position now. Somebody is winning her first Grand Slam singles title today, and she has the momentum.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

Raducanu broke back to level the second set at 2-2 with a pair of sharply angled backhand winners. The first, which earned her a break point, seemed to be a slight mishit, and dropped softly inside the line to her apparent surprise. The second, on break point, was a far more assuredly struck return winner, capitalizing on a poorly placed second serve from Fernandez. Raducanu consolidated the break, holding for 3-2 in the second.

The second set has opened with a hard momentum swing toward Fernandez.

After holding, Raducanu gained a big 0-40 advantage as Fernandez served in the second game. But Fernandez steeled herself and reeled off five straight points to salvage the hold, hitting unreturnable first serves on the final three points of the game. Fernandez then broke Raducanu’s serve, grabbing a 2-1 lead in the second set.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

Break points saved: Raducanu — 3 of 4, Fernandez — 11 of 13, including three in that last game. It has been a terrific final so far, one in which both players have performed well in this brand new environment and are showing some of their best tennis.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

Continuing a streak that began in the qualifying draw, Emma Raducanu won her 19th consecutive set at this U.S. Open in style, but it was a battle like none have been before for her.

The 18-year-old from Britain earned double set point with her opponent, Leylah Fernandez, serving at 4-5, hitting a sharply angled cross-court backhand return winner off a slow Fernandez second serve.

Raducanu missed her first set point opportunity by pushing a backhand long, and couldn’t make a difficult backhand lob on the run on her second opportunity.

Raducanu earned a third set point when Fernandez missed a forehand long, but missed her backhand return into the net.

She got a fourth set point chance by stepping around her backhand and cracking a strong inside-out forehand which Fernandez could not corral with her forehand. The fourth time was the charm for Raducanu, who bent low to rifle a forehand winner down the line into the open court, ending the set after 58 minutes.

Raducanu turned to the crowd and raised her arms, encouraging them to amplify their already ample applause for the display they have seen from both teenagers today.

Fernandez left the court after the set for a break; Raducanu stayed in her seat and enjoyed some snacks.

Raducanu and Fernandez have stayed on serve, with Raducanu inching ahead at 5-4. Still, Fernandez is making her work like no opponent has so far this tournament. Raducanu has not lost a set during her nine previous matches here, and has not had any set before today in the main draw last longer than 51 minutes.

Raducanu and Fernandez remain on serve in the first set, with Raducanu leading 4-3. Raducanu pulled ahead in the seventh game with an inside-in forehand winner, punctuated with a scream of “Come on!” Though only broken once so far, Fernandez’s serve has been shaky. She has only landed 44 percent of her first serves, compared with 63 percent for Raducanu.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

After trading breaks, Fernandez and Raducanu exchanged fairly routine holds to stay on serve with Raducanu leading 3-2 in the first set. The two are fairly level in most statistical categories early on, both having struck six winners. Both are also pouncing on the other’s second serves, which will put landing first serves at a premium in this match.

Fernandez broke Raducanu right back in the third game to get herself on the board at 1-2 in the first set, converting on her fourth break point opportunity and roaring “C’monnnnn!” when Raducanu’s backhand hit the net.

The players have dug into long battles early in this match: Fans who were late getting to their seats before the first serve had to wait up to 23 long minutes in the tunnels before being allowed to enter the seating bowl on the first changeover break.

Credit…Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Raducanu and Fernandez weren’t the only teenagers competing for big prizes at the U.S. Open today.

Robin Montgomery, a 17-year-old lefty from Washington, D.C., won the girls’ singles title with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Kristina Dmitruk, 17, of Belarus.

Hours later, Montgomery also captured the girls’ doubles title. She and Ashlyn Krueger defeated Resse Brantmeier and Elvina Kalieva in an all-American final, winning a match tiebreak, 10-4, after splitting two sets.

Montgomery has trained at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md., the same facility that developed the men’s player Frances Tiafoe.

Last year, when the U.S. Open’s junior tournaments were canceled because of pandemic restrictions, Montgomery competed in the women’s draw as a wild card.

The U.S. Open boys’ singles title was won by Daniel Rincon, 18, of Spain, who prevailed, 6-2, 7-6(6), against the top-seeded Shang Juncheng, 16, of China.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

The Guardian newspaper in Britain calls Emma Raducanu, the British tennis star, “focused, fearless, unflappable.”

In Toronto, The Globe and Mail notes of Leylah Fernandez: “The youngster from Laval, Que., has turned the WTA Tour on its ear in Flushing Meadows.”

The two unseeded teenagers, Raducanu 18, and Fernandez, 19, have become international sensations, especially back in their home countries. Raducanu was born in Toronto to a Romanian father and Chinese mother and moved to England when she was 2.

Fernandez was born in Montreal, about two months before Raducanu, to an Ecuadorean father and a mother from Toronto, whose parents immigrated to Canada from the Philippines.

Fernandez and Raducanu are meeting in the U.S. Open women’s final — the first all-teen final since 1999 — and celebrities have taken note.

“The Giant Slayer continues!!” Magic Johnson, the Hall of Fame basketball star, tweeted after Fernandez beat the second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka in a semifinal. Before that, Johnson told followers that if they hadn’t yet seen Fernandez play, they were “truly missing out.” Cassidy Hubbarth, an ESPN anchor of Filipino descent, tweeted out a series of Philippine flag emojis.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain weighed in, calling Raducanu’s semifinal win over Maria Sakkari “brilliant,” on his Twitter account and adding, “The whole country will be cheering you on in the final.”

Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, who is in the middle of an election campaign, also said his country was rooting for Fernandez.

The Canadian Maple Syrup cartel had to be thrilled, too. After a win, Fernandez joked on court that the sweet Canadian export was the key to the success of her and her compatriots, including Felix Auger-Aliassime, who reached a men’s semifinal; Bianca Andreescu, who won the tournament in 2019; and the rising Denis Shapovalov. Not bad for a country with a population about 10 percent as large as the United States.

Aleksandra Wozniak, one of the first Canadian women to break through and become a tennis sensation, tweeted, “Canada, you have a new star!”

Naturally, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge sent regards to Raducanu. Kate Middleton is a well-known tennis fan and a regular in the Royal Box at Wimbledon each year.

Because of their connections to the Philippines and China, the young finalists are receiving support from many fans in Asia.

Jorge Fernandez, Leylah’s father and coach, said he reached out to one of the Filipino community organizations in Montreal that helped his family when Leylah was young. He said that, with everything going on, people there were surprised to hear from him. But he felt it was important.

“I’m glad that they’re touching the Asian community,” he said of both players. “I think that’s a huge opportunity in the women’s game just to be able to expand and have a new style.”

The second game of the match was already an entrenched 16-point battle, finally ending with Raducanu breaking on her sixth break point opportunity for a 2-0 lead. She shouted “Let’s go!” as Fernandez missed a forehand.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

Though tennis was once considered an exclusively white country club sport, the meeting between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez reflects the sport’s increasing diversity, particularly on the women’s side. In nine of the last 11 women’s singles finals at the U.S. Open, there has been at least one woman of color.

Fernandez was born in Montreal to a mother whose parents were from the Phillipines and an Ecuadorean father. She speaks English, Spanish, and French fluently. Raducanu was born in Toronto to a Chinese mother and a Romanian father before moving to London as a toddler.

A Japanese reporter asked Raducanu after her match if she saw parallels among herself, Fernandez, and the reigning U.S. Open champion, Naomi Osaka, who has a Japanese mother as part of her multicultural background.

“I think for me, having a Chinese mom, she definitely instilled from a young age hard work, discipline,” Raducanu said.

Raducanu said she also drew inspiration from Li Na of China, who became the first Asian player to claim a major women’s singles title when she won the French Open in 2011.

“She had extremely good weapons — her movement, her mentality — but her inner strength and belief really stood out for me,” Raducanu said of Li. She said she recalled watching Li defeat Francesca Schiavone of Italy in the 2011 French final, a tight, two-set battle.

“That was definitely a long, tough match,” Raducanu said. “But the amount of mental strength and resilience she showed, that match still sticks in my head today.”

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

It’s not about money for the unlikely U.S. Open finalists Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu. But the money certainly won’t hurt.

Before the tournament, Fernandez had earned $786,772 in official prize money during her short career. Raducanu had earned $303,376 in her even shorter career, most of it from reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in her Grand Slam debut in July.

Those numbers are about to change dramatically. The winner today will earn $2.5 million, the runner-up $1.25 million. Those figures do not account for the sponsorships and other commercial deals that Fernandez, a Canadian, and Raducanu, who is British, will most likely sign because of their attention-grabbing runs in New York.

Before the final, Raducanu said that her biggest title so far had come two years ago at a tournament in India where the total prize money was $25,000. The U.S. Open’s total purse this year: $57.5 million.

Speaking of Raducanu, Tim Crow, a sports marketing consultant, told The Guardian that he “hadn’t had this many calls from clients, major brands, who are interested in her since Lewis Hamilton broke through in Formula One. If she wins, she will become one of the hottest properties in British sport, if not the hottest.”

Tennis has a global fan base, but Raducanu’s and Fernandez’s multicultural backgrounds could add to their global appeal. Raducanu was born in Canada and has a Romanian father and Chinese mother. Fernandez’s mother’s parents immigrated to Canada from the Philippines, and her father was born in Ecuador.

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When Fernandez won the first semifinal on Thursday evening, she became the youngest player to reach a Grand Slam singles final since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004. Fernandez was supplanted, less than two hours later, by the even younger Raducanu, who won the second semifinal.

Teen phenoms were a major part of the tennis ecosystem for decades, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s, when Boris Becker, Steffi Graf, Michael Chang, Martina Hingis and Serena Williams all won major titles before their 18th birthdays.

In recent decades, however, the prevailing theory has been that school-age players are too immature, physically and mentally, to handle the rigors of an increasingly demanding sport. Players like Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have racked up major titles well into their 30s, when tennis careers were once considered past their expiration dates.

Today’s match will be the first major final between two teenagers since the 1999 U.S. Open, when a 17-year-old Serena Williams defeated an 18-year-old Martina Hingis for the title.

But that matchup was nowhere near as shocking as this one: Williams was already ranked seventh in the world; Hingis was ranked No. 1, and was playing in the U.S. Open for a third straight year, having already won the tournament in 1997 against Williams’s sister, Venus, who was 17 then.

A breakout run is no guarantee of sustained success in tennis, of course, but it’s a pretty good way to start.

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Raducanu said she first met Fernandez at the Orange Bowl tournament in Florida when both were competing in the under-12 division. They found a common bond, Raducanu said, in their shared Canadian birthplaces.

The two teens have not faced each other on the professional tour — Raducanu, particularly, has played very few professional tournaments, and is competing in only her second major — but they did meet in the second round of the Wimbledon girls’ draw in 2018, with Raducanu winning, 6-2, 6-4.

Raducanu said that while the two have not been in close contact in recent years, they remain friendly.

“She’s a really cool person,” Raducanu said of Fernandez, who she said had handed out cupcakes to other players on Monday, her 19th birthday.

Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

While Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez have connections around the globe, they share roots in Canada, a nation better known for winter sports that has become an unlikely hotbed of tennis talent. (While Raducanu represents Britain, she retains a Canadian passport.)

Since 2014, six players representing Canada have reached major singles semifinals: Eugenie Bouchard, Milos Raonic, Bianca Andreescu, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Fernandez. All but Bouchard have at least one parent who was born outside Canada.

Andreescu became the first of the group to break through to win a major title when she defeated Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final two years ago at age 19. Fernandez, who is based in Boynton Beach, Fla., is hoping to be the second Canadian 19-year-old in the last three years to hoist the trophy in New York.

All of this could be cause for envy on this side of the border: no Americans reached the quarterfinals of either the men’s or women’s singles draws this year for the first time in U.S. Open history. Before that, at least one American had reached the semifinals each year.

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During a difficult financial period for Leylah Fernandez’s family, her parents took jewelry and watches to a Montreal pawnshop to help finance tennis training and travel for her and her younger sister, Bianca. It was not easy, but it was done without hesitation.

“When you are asking your children to work hard and sacrifice, you have to show that you are willing to do the same thing,” Leylah’s father, Jorge Fernandez, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “We sold our house, I sold my business. These are the things you do to help your children reach their dreams.”

A former journeyman soccer player, who learned tennis by reading and watching videos, Fernandez’s father has coached her since she was a schoolgirl. Although he never played tennis, he said he understands sports and describes himself as a tough, old-fashioned taskmaster.

“I believe in the grind,” he said at a news conference Friday. “I believe in the hard work. I believe in the suffering. If we do that enough, then we get really, really strong.”

Fernandez said that despite the diligence and sacrifice he had demanded of his daughters, Leylah, 19, insisted that he continue to coach her, though he said he would prefer that someone else take over. For now, he keeps the job, and though he is not at the U.S. Open, he still serves as Leylah and Bianca’s technical, strategic and motivational adviser.

The night before Leylah’s matches, they discuss tactics on the phone. The morning of the match they have another call to go over the specifics of her day, including the timing of meals and transportation, how and when she will train and warm up. Then right before the match, they speak on the phone one last time.

“That’s kind of like the father-daughter talk,” he said, and added, “A virtual hug and a kiss.”

That conversation often centers on sentiment and emotion, depending on what Fernandez senses from his daughter. He might tell her just to have fun on court — which is what he said right before she beat the third-seeded Naomi Osaka.

Sometimes, if he senses nerves from his daughter, or fear of the moment, he brings it up, he said, so that she can face the jitters and work through them.

“I know we say she’s just unbelievable with her mind-set right now,” he said. “She shows so much fight. But she is human, and she does feel those emotions.”

Before she takes the court against the 18-year-old Raducanu, Jorge Fernandez plans to motivate his daughter by acknowledging what is at stake in a Grand Slam final.

“Let’s leave it all on the table,” he said. “Let’s sweat it all out. Let’s make sure that no matter how it finishes, there are no regrets.”

Early in the tournament, when Fernandez beat Osaka and then the 16th-seeded Angelique Kerber — then No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka — many assumed that her fitness trainer, Duglas Cordero, who was sitting next to her mother, was her father.

But Jorge Fernandez has remained at home in Florida throughout the tournament to look after Bianca — the family moved to Florida several years ago so that Leylah could train all year on affordable public courts. Fernandez calls himself the “king of the public courts.”

Eventually, as Fernandez advanced through the women’s draw, Bianca flew to New York to join the fun. But Jorge Fernandez did not travel for one important reason: He and his daughter are “extremely superstitious,” he said.

“Look,” he added, “I’ve been using the same shampoo on game day, kind of using the same jeans on game day, I think the same socks and underwear. It’s taken to a completely different level.”

Both father and daughter agree that there is no reason to mess with success. So he will watch the final from home, with the right pair of jeans, the right socks and underwear, and the right shampoo in his hair. His daughter has already been guaranteed $1.25 million, and could take home $2.5 million if she wins. Perhaps they can buy back the watches and jewelry they pawned so many years ago.

Credit…Charles Sykes/Invision, via Charles Sykes/Invision/Ap

Before Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez became breakout stars and the new faces of the U.S. Open, the story of the tournament focused on who wasn’t playing.

The U.S. Open aced the slogan for its marketing campaign for this year’s tournament, a return to normalcy: “The Greatest Return.” But for the accompanying pictures — featuring many of the Open’s recent champions — a “let” needed to be called.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

Ranked 150th in the world, Emma Raducanu had to play in the qualifying rounds of the U.S. Open a week before the main-draw tournament, in order to secure her spot. Raducanu won three matches to reach the main draw, and then six more to advance to the final, becoming the first player in history to reach a major final as a qualifier.

While many players would look haggard after nine matches in one tournament, Raducanu looks hale and happy, helped by her incredible efficiency on court. Raducanu has won all nine of her matches in straight sets, never needing so much as a tiebreaker in any of the 18 sets.

In only one set, in the second round of qualifying against Mariam Bolkvadze, did her opponent reach five games. Bolkvadze led with Raducanu serving at 4-5, 0-30, and was two points from taking the second set, only for Raducanu to reel off 12 straight points to end the match.

Remarkably, despite playing three more matches, Raducanu has spent less time on court than Fernandez at this U.S. Open, totaling 11 hours and 34 minutes in nine matches, compared with Fernandez’s 12 hours and 45 minutes in six matches.

While Raducanu has rolled, Leylah Fernandez has fought, beating some of the game’s toughest players in three-set battles. After winning her first two matches against the past quarterfinalists Ana Konjuh and Kaia Kanepi, Fernandez knocked out the defending champion, Naomi Osaka, in three sets in the third round. The third-seeded Osaka served for the match at 6-5 in the second set, but Fernandez broke and ran away with the second-set tiebreaker as Osaka unraveled.

In the fourth round, Fernandez beat Angelique Kerber, the 2016 U.S. Open champion, in three sets. In the quarterfinals, Fernandez beat the fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina in a third-set tiebreaker. In the semifinals, Fernandez beat the second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka in three sets.

“It has helped me open my eyes that I have no limit to my potential,” Fernandez said of her run. “I can go three sets against these players, I can play against these top players, and I can win against these top players.”

Though Fernandez has paid a higher physical toll to reach the final, she will enter it far more battle tested. She has proved what she can do deep into a third set of an important match, while Raducanu’s response in those situations remains largely unknown.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

The U.S. Open women’s final is perhaps the most surprising Grand Slam final in tennis history, featuring two unseeded teenagers, including the first qualifier to play in a final in the Open era.

Leylah Fernandez, who turned 19 this week, and her opponent Emma Raducanu, 18, have been the sensations of a U.S. Open that began without many of the most significant stars in tennis. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena and Venus Williams were forced to skip the tournament because of injuries. Fernandez, of Canada, and Raducanu, of Britain, have somehow filled the void. Their tennis and infectious personalities have been nothing short of show stopping.

Saturday, Sept. 11, at 4 p.m. Eastern time.

On ESPN and streaming on the ESPN app.

On TSN and streaming on the TSN app.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

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