Teen dream: Unseeded youngsters will meet in U.S. Open final

Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez are so similar in many ways: They have an enviable speed and anticipation. They take balls low on the ground and redirect them with ease. They don’t care how much well-known or successful opponents are. You love the big moment.

There is more. They are both teenagers. Neither of them are seeded at the US Open. Both are loudly supported by the crowd. And now, remarkably, they are both Grand Slam finalists.

Raducanu, an 18-year-old Briton who is 150th, and Fernandez, a 19-year-old from Canada who is 73rd, went completely different ways to the championship game at Flushing Meadows on Thursday night. They will return on Saturday at Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first teenage grand final since the 1999 US Open when Serena Williams, 17, defeated Martina Hingis, 18.

Raducanu was the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final in the professional era by overpowering Maria Sakkari, who was seeded in 17th place, with 6-1, 6-4. Raducanu only entered her second major tournament and won all 18 sets she played in three games in the qualifying rounds and six in the main draw.

“I only took care of it every day,” said Raducanu, “and before you know it, three weeks later I’m in the final and I can’t believe it.”

Who can? Not Raducanu, who originally bought a plane ticket to leave New York after qualifying ended as she thought it might be the end of her stay.

She is now the youngest slam finalist since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17.

Fernandez isn’t much older – her birthday was Monday – and she made it through a full swing semi-final to beat number 2 Aryna Sabalenka 7: 6 (3), 4: 6, 6: 4.

Leylah Fernandez of Canada reacts after defeating Aryna Sabalenka.Seth Wenig / AP

“You are both young. They play fearlessly, ”said Sakkari of Raducanu and Fernandez. “They have nothing to lose when they play against us.”

Raducanu agreed with this assessment, saying, “When you are young there is an element of you that is completely free to play.”

Wimbledon was Raducanu’s only previous major tournament; she entered via a wildcard entry with a ranking outside the top 300 and made it to the fourth round before quitting in the second set due to breathing difficulties. Fernandez’s best performance in the past in a slam reached the third round at Roland Garros last year.

“I’m glad the fans love whatever I’m doing on the pitch – and I love it too,” said Fernandez. “We’ll say it’s magical.”

This was the left-hander’s fourth three-set win in a row against a seeded opponent. First was No. 3 Naomi Osaka, the US Open winner of 2018 and 2020. Then came No. 16 Angelique Kerber, the champion of 2016. This was followed by No. 5 Elina Svitolina and Sabalenka.

“There are no limits to what I can do. I’m just happy that everything is going well at the moment, ”said Fernandez, who could bring Canada the second US Open women’s title in quick succession after Bianca Andreescu’s triumph in 2019.

Raducanu and Fernandez are both very world citizens.

Raducanu was born in Toronto to a Chinese mother and a Romanian father; The family moved to England when Emma was 2.

Fernandez was born in Montreal to a Filipino-Canadian mother and an Ecuadorian father; the family moved to Florida after Leylah succeeded as a junior at the age of 12. Papa is also her trainer, although he is not with her in New York, but gives coaching tips in daily phone calls.

Raducanu and Fernandez first met when they both competed in U12 tournaments and connected through their mutual connection with Canada. On Saturday they will share a place for the first time in a tour-level match.

However, they played in the second round of the Wimbledon junior tournament in 2018.

Raducanu won that. Three years later they’ll be playing again – on a bigger stage and with much, much more at stake.

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