SEPTEMBER 11, 2021
Emma Raducanu walked on to court for her first grand slam final with a smile, responded to the roar of the crowd with a gentle wave of her left hand, ready to go. If she was going to go down, she would go down on her terms.
We need not have worried. In the most intense of arenas, in uncharted territory, the 18-year-old won her first grand slam title and the greatest thing about it all was that from the first moment to last, with only one or two moments of mild doubt, it almost seemed inevitable.
Flanked by six members of the Original 9 – the women who founded the WTA Tour – including Billie Jean King, the 18-year-old Briton stood, smiling broadly as she posed for cameras, seemingly unbothered by the pressure of the occasion.
Dressed in the same predominantly red outfit that she wore throughout the tournament, Raducanu acknowledged the applause from the crowd who were packed into the Arthur Ashe stadium, knowing that the biggest audience of her life would probably be pulling for the Canadian, as close as they could get to having one of their own in the final.
Right from the start, the 18-year-old seemed to be at ease, holding serve to 30 in the first game, thumping a backhand cross-court on the last point and jumping up and down, shaking free any nerves that there may have been.
The crowd were with Leylah Fernandez but they could not fail to be impressed by the sheer brilliance of Raducanu, a thumping backhand return on the first point setting the tone on the Canadian’s opening service game.
Her coolness, calmness under pressure, one of her biggest assets over the entire two weeks, was clear for everyone to see. But it was her resilience that stood out, an incredible ability, at 18, in only her second grand slam tournament, to withstand pressure.
There were some nervy moments, an anxious look to her team when she missed a drive volley serving at 3-3, 15-15. But her temperament remained impeccable, as she showed in winning the best rally of the first set to hold for 4-3.
When chances to win the opening set came and went in the 10th game, she didn’t flinch, never went away from her natural game, her unerring desire to stay aggressive. And when she wrapped up the first set, she stood still, for a couple of seconds, before pumping her first and yelling “Let’s go”.
Having won nine matches in a row, including three in qualifying, each without losing a set, the momentum was with her but no one wins without withstanding difficult moments and when she fell a break down to 2-1, she bounced back again to break straight back for 2-2 with a stunning backhand return.
Each of Fernandez’s outstanding wins over Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka came in three sets and Raducanu knew the Canadian would not go away. Typically, the New York crowd got even more behind Fernandez, mostly because they wanted more of the incredible quality both players were creating. At 2-2, Raducanu seemed to grow again, holding serve under pressure and then, guessing right, ripping a brilliant forehand winner down the line to break for 4-2.
Two games from victory, the finishing line in sight, the heart must have been racing but her mind was clear. Eighteen years of age, closing in on victory, she looked like she was just having a friendly hit in the park.
But winning the last game – and the last point – is the hardest thing to do in tennis and Virginia Wade, the last British woman to win a grand slam singles title, took a deep breath.
And there was still time for drama. Of course there was. After missing two match points, thanks mostly to the effort of the outstanding Fernandez, Raducanu then needed a medical timeout because of a bloody leg, the result of a slide on one leg.
Fernandez looked rattled, Raducanu looked in pain, briefly, but she came out, saved break point at 5-3, 30-40 and then finished things off with an ace, calm as you like. As Tim Henman, sitting courtside, said soon after: “This is no flash in the pan, she’ll win more of these.”