Over the past 20 years, as memories of Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Martina Hingis battling for glory in the final rounds of Grand Slam tournaments as fresh-faced teenagers faded deep into the memory of professional tennis, it was fair to conclude that the era of teenagers had abated.
While there have been thrilling anomalies since, from the triumph of Bianca Andreescu at the US Open two years ago to Maria Sharapova's Wimbledon victory 17 years in the past, for the most part with the rise of technology and physicality within the sport teenagers have been brushed aside.
Over two of the craziest Grand Slam tournaments in recent years, however, none of those beliefs towards the sport have stopped two endlessly gutsy youngsters, 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez and 18-year-old Emma Raducanu, from arriving at the US Open and demanding the attention of all. With every round they have passed and each new career victory achieved, they have shown that they are here to take what is theirs. On Saturday, they will be the first pair of teens to face each other in a Grand Slam final since Serena Williams and Hingis at the US Open in 1999.
They share a long history together; they first met each other when they were 12 years old and their first interactions were pleasant: "We first encountered each other because I was born in Toronto and she was Canadian, so we kind of, like, made a little relationship back then," said Raducanu. "Yeah, I'm sure it's going to be extremely different to when we last encountered each other. But we're both playing good tennis so it will be a good match." As 15-year-olds, they faced each other in the second round of junior Wimbledon, which Raducanu won in straight sets. Since then, they have tread their separate paths. In fact, their journeys to this shared moment could scarcely differ more. In terms of their career pathways, Fernandez of Canada, who is only two months older than Raducanu and ranked a modest 73rd in the rankings, has at least tread a more conventional path to her first Grand Slam final.
After a sparkling junior career that included a triumph at the French Open junior event in 2019, Fernandez's transition to the main tour has been, by most standards, seamless. She spent about a year building her ranking at lower-level tournaments, and shortly after returning from the pandemic break she reached the top 100. Earlier this year, she won her first-ever WTA title in Monterrey and although she had entered the US Open in indifferent form, with every match she has gained more experience and understanding of the level necessary to succeed on the tour.
Since she has arrived at the US Open, she has wrestled through one of the most absurdly difficult draws in recent years. Even her first two rounds, against in-form qualifier Ana Konjuh and six-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist Kaia Kanepi, were difficult. Since then, she has defeated a long list of names in thrilling three-setters: she upset defending champion Naomi Osaka, the third seed, 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4; she defeated Angelique Kerber, the former champion, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2, and Elina Svitolina, the fifth seed, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) and then second seed Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4. She has been unfathomably clutch, winning all five tiebreaks she has contested in the tournament, while beating three top five players in total. She has fought tooth and nail and at times played at a sublime level.
While Britain’s Raducanu has not faced the same calibre of opponents, she has made her level clear by destroying everything in her path. The 18-year-old has not lost a single set, including in the qualifying draw, and she has conceded only 27 games.
Likewise, despite being two months younger than Fernandez, she is in her fourth career tour-level event.
Similarities and differences
The similarities and differences in their games: at their best, both possess few weaknesses to be exploited. Despite standing at 5ft 6in and appearing even smaller, Fernandez’s timing and wickedly fast left arm have combined to generate a spectacular forehand. More often than not she has played total tennis, combining that explosiveness with angles, touch, guile and high-level returning. While Raducanu’s variety is still a work in progress, she similarly has a well-rounded game, and both navigate the court with an innate understanding of their own strengths and how to use them.
This final will be notable for another reason. Both Fernandez and Raducanu come from immigrant families, with Fernandez's parents hailing from Ecuador and the Philippines, while Raducanu's background is Romanian and Chinese.
When asked how she would describe this improbable run late on Thursday night, Fernandez shrugged: “I think one word that really stuck to me is ‘magical’ because not only is my run really good but also the way I’m playing right now. I’m just having fun, I’m trying to produce something for the crowd to enjoy. I’m glad that whatever I’m doing on court, the fans are loving it and I’m loving it, too. We’ll say it’s magical.”