NEW YORK (Dispatches) - A pair of teenagers will play for the U.S. Open women’s title Saturday, and while that isn’t a matchup anyone expected when the tournament began, it’s the matchup we — and they — deserve.
The poise and ice-water-in-their-veins shotmaking displayed by unseeded 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez of Canada and 18-year-old qualifier Emma Raducanu of Britain have made them worthy finalists and vaulted them to the forefront of tennis’ next generation.
Fernandez shrieked and fell to her knees on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday when she continued her success with a 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 victory over No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. It was an upset according to their ranking but not according to the way Fernandez has played in reaching her first Grand Slam singles final. In her last four matches, she has knocked off defending champion Naomi Osaka, 2016 U.S. Open winner Angelique Kerber, No. 5 Elina Svitolina and Sabalenka, each in three sets, never rattled once.
“My dad would tell me all the time there’s no limit to my potential to what I can do. Every day we just got to keep working hard, we got to keep going for it,” Fernandez said. “Nothing’s impossible. There’s no limit to what I can do. I’m just glad that right now everything’s going well.”
There’s an understatement.
Raducanu, who was born in Canada but moved to England with her family as a child, extended her streak of not having lost a set here with a 6-1, 6-4 rout of Maria Sakkari. She had a flight home booked for after the end of the qualifying tournament, not anticipating she would rampage through a field that lacked 23-time Slam singles champion Serena Williams but hasn’t lacked drama.
But there Raducanu stood Thursday, calming earning breaks in Sakkari’s first two service games in the first set and another break for 2-1 in the second set. She became the first qualifier, male or female, to reach the final of one of tennis’ major tournaments.
She had a response to everything Sakkari threw at her and answers during an often awkward post-match, on-court interview. Asked how she will manage the expectations she will face in the final, she played coy. “Is there any expectation?” Raducanu said. “I’m a qualifier, so technically, there’s no pressure on me.”
But there is, and it’s a good pressure. A plaque posted along the path that players take from the locker room to the court reminds them of a favorite saying of tennis great Billie Jean King: Pressure is a privilege. Fernandez and Raducanu seem to understand and thrive on it.
After her biggest triumph so far, Fernandez recalled the pitfalls she had to overcome to get here and how her belief in herself was tested when she was in fifth or sixth grade.
Sabalenka fought back in the second set and they exchanged breaks in the third before Fernandez capitalized on Sabalenka’s inconsistent serving and won on her first match point, after Sabalenka hit a forehand long.
So far, pressure has been a friend to Fernandez and Raducanu and it’s a privilege to watch them.