By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
The most unexpected things in sports are also the best.
There are upsets and surprises of varying degrees, and then there is what happened Saturday at the US Open, which blows all other shocks out of the water and somehow managed to do so while encompassing a narrative to put a smile on even the sternest of faces.
“What Emma Raducanu achieved in New York is unprecedented, anywhere,” wrote Martin Samuel of London’s Daily Mail. “She could be no less surprising had she jumped out of the crowd and won the Olympic 100 meters, running barefoot.”
Raducanu, a mere hopeful in the unforgiving world of professional tennis at the start of this year, is now the sport’s most electrifying new superstar, having taken her ranking of 150 for a scarcely believable joyride over the past three weeks, all the way from qualifying to lifting the ultimate prize of a Grand Slam title and a $2.5 million winner’s check.
That she did so with a victory over another youngster known only to hardcore tennis followers, No. 73-ranked, 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, only added to the script and enhanced Raducanu’s likability. New York fans, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gave their hearts to two young women who weren’t born on that terrible morning when so much changed.
At Arthur Ashe Stadium, Raducanu, from Great Britain, won 6-4, 6-3, but this was a contest in which the age-old cliché was profoundly appropriate: It was a shame there had to be a loser.
Yet while the memory of an extraordinary tournament will continue to elicit smiles, let’s not diminish the story and the achievement by Hollywood-ifying it. Sure, never before had a qualifier made a final, let alone won a Grand Slam. Never before had two players outside the top 50 reached a final. But this was neither a fluke nor some wild confluence of events.
Raducanu might have enjoyed some small fortune when Jennifer Brady withdrew from her part of the draw and world No. 1 Ash Barty suffered a shocking third-round exit. However, she won because, quite simply, she played the best tennis of any woman to step onto the Flushing Meadows courts from the moment the event began to its very conclusion, claiming every match she played in straight sets.
Fernandez got through to the showcase match with more difficulty, surviving a four-pack of nail-biters against Grand Slam champions Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, plus world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 5 Elina Svitolina.
The matchup in the final felt like a fairytale, but that descriptor doesn’t do it justice. It was a wondrous story of two awe-inspiring breakthroughs coming at the same time, but it wasn’t some cute, little tale of young women who hit the jackpot.
Raducanu and Fernandez play with smiles on their faces, but they won because they have outstanding game and true warrior spirit. It is a drastic oversimplification to say the happy-go-lucky vibe of youth got them through. They fought, Fernandez with a little more growl and fist-pumping, Raducanu with an intense inner will that carried her when the moment of truth arrived.
They were there through sacrifice and work and thought and technique, not because of a screenplay written in the stars. For the past two years, Raducanu has worked on building incredible core strength that allows for a near perfect transfer of power and timing into the ball.
Fernandez moved from Canada to Florida with her family to pursue her dream and has perfected a service style that generates the ideal risk-reward ratio for a player of her height and physique. They’ve trained and worked thousands of hours, and they figured out how to gain an edge in a game in which everyone is looking for one.
There are no half-measures in tennis. The WTA Tour is a relentless grind of travel and tournaments around the world. The rankings leaps that are coming — Raducanu to 23 and Fernandez to 28 — mean they will be spared from trudging along to low-prize-money challenger events to build up their résumés.
In turn, higher-quality opposition and greater expectations await.
“From pretty early on in my life, I have dreamed of winning a Grand Slam. You just say these things,” Raducanu said. “But to have the belief I did in actually executing and winning, I can’t believe it.”
We might never see a better story in tennis, and it will be difficult to top in any sport. But let’s get the tale straight. It was a surprise, and it was dramatic, and it wowed us all, but Raducanu and Fernandez were there not because circumstance shined upon them but because they deserved to be.
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