“The sports record is a kind of substitute for immortality.” — Allen Guttman, a sports historian.
“Records are made to be broken.” — Pete Sampras, who once held the men’s record for most major titles.
“More than anything, winning the Grand Slam is a battle within yourself. It really gets down to how you handle the pressure, more than how you handle anybody else.” — Margaret Court, winner of the Grand Slam in 1970.
History was made at this U.S. Open but immortality was denied. Time after time those who thrived on the pressure beat those burdened by it. The technical and tactical brilliance of Daniil Medvedev thwarted Novak Djokovic’s quest to complete a rare Grand Slam at the U.S. Open as well as the Serb’s bid to surpass Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, all three tied with 20 major titles. But for most of the fortnight in New York, the spotlight shined on two Cinderella stories.
Just when you thought women’s tennis couldn’t get any more unpredictable and topsy-turvy, it did — and unimaginably, delightfully so. Sixteen different players had reached the semifinals in the four previous majors going into the U.S. Open, but never before had two unseeded women made a Grand Slam final. And, even more astounding, never had a qualifier won a major.
Their timing could not have been more propitious. On the 20th anniversary of the horrific tragedy of 9/11 and a year after the pandemic resulted in a cheerless, spectator-less Open, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, two little-known teenagers captivated fans with their shot-making, tenacity and charisma.
Both tour neophytes were extreme longshots. At 200-1 odds, Fernandez, ranked just No. 73 and had lost three straight first-round matches before Flushing Meadows. Raducanu ranked even lower at No. 150, but a fourth-round Wimbledon showing two months ago boosted her odds to 100-1.
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic applauds the crowd after losing to Russia’s Daniil Medvedev during their 2021 US Open final at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. – AFP
Besides their underdog status, the shock finalists have much in common. Both are bi-racial: the just-turned-19 Fernandez, a 19-year-old Canadian, has an Ecuadorian father and a Filipina-Canadian mother; Raducanu, 18 and from Great Britain, has a Romanian father and a Chinese mother. Both are undersized by today’s pro standards: Raducanu at 5’7” and Fernandez a mere 5’4”. And both compensate with their speed, smart tactics and mental toughness.
A striking difference, though, is their level of confidence. After reaching the semifinals with a 6-3, 6-4 upset over Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic, Raducanu, who won three qualifying matches to get into the main draw, confided, “I didn’t expect to be here at all. I think my flights were booked at the end of qualifying.” Following her 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 fourth-round upset over 16th-seed and three-time major champion Angelique Kerber, Fernandez crowed, “I’m not surprised of anything that’s happening right now.”
What already happened was that giant-killer Fernandez knocked out defending champion and third seed Naomi Osaka 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 in a memorable third-round shocker. The loss was so devastating to Osaka, who was three points from victory in the second set, that she decided to take another break from competition. (She pulled out of the French Open and skipped Wimbledon citing mental health reasons.) In a tearful press conference, Osaka said, “Recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief. When I lose, I feel very sad, and I don’t think that’s normal.”
Fernandez thrived on the challenge of a brutal draw, and credited other talented teenagers like Carlos Alcaraz, along with her loving family — “They have definitely kept the joy for me” — and the supportive crowds for inspiring her to overcome adversity.
A “Why not me? Why not now?” attitude energised Fernandez. She needed a third-set tiebreaker to outlast No. 5 Elina Svitolina 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in a quarterfinal thriller. Hugging the baseline to smack aggressive serve returns and on-the-rise forehands during rallies, the left-handed Fernandez kept the predictable Svitolina off-balance. “She reminds me of [former No. 1 Marcelo] Rios,” raved ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. “It’s amazing how she absorbs power and redirects shots,” said former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert. “She plays bigger than her size.”
Fernandez did exactly that against 5’11” power hitter Aryna Sabalenka. The Belarussian blazed to a 3-0 lead, winning 12 of the first 14 points, but the chants of “Ley-Lah! Ley-lah!” lifted the exuberant Canadian to a tiebreaker. World No. 2 Sabalenka raced to a 2-0 lead with forehand winners, then cracked under the pressure, committing five unforced errors. Fernandez, who had taken her three previous tiebreakers, seized this one 7-3.
Sabalenka rebounded to take the second set 6-4 and broke back and then held serve for 4-all in the deciding set. Playing every point like it was match point, Fernandez belted three winners and a big second serve to go ahead 5-4. Sabalenka choked with two double faults and two groundstroke errors, and Fernandez broke serve at love for a stunning 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 upset. As Sabalenka left the court in tears, ESPN analyst Chris Evert said, “I’ve never seen anything like this on Ashe [Stadium]. Fernandez doesn’t get tired. She has such a skill set. Her tennis is one thing, but her nerves, her confidence is another.” Afterwards, the entertaining Fernandez said, “I tried to bring magic on court and put on a show for everybody.”
With a far easier draw, Raducanu produced much less drama. After eliminating 11th-seeded Bencic, the Canadian faced Maria Sakkari, the 17th seed from Greece in the semifinals.
The much-improved Sakkari, who was a point away from making the French Open final against Barbora Krejcikova, had done the heavy lifting in the top-half of the draw. She ousted 10th-seeded and two-time major titlist Petra Kvitova 6-4, 6-3, overcame 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, and outclassed Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 6-4.
Like Fernandez, Raducanu embraces both the pressure and the crowd. “If you believe in yourself, anything is possible,” said the Brit, who, just three months earlier, had passed her A-Level exams — getting A’s in economics and maths — and was ranked an obscure No. 338. In her first eight Open matches, she hadn’t dropped a set and she streaked to a 5-0 lead against the shell-shocked Sakkari. Stroking beautiful backhand down the line, pounding forehands for winners, and producing 110 mile-an-hour serves belied by her slight physique, Raducanu polished off the favoured Sakkari 6-1, 6-4. “She’s a very smart player,” noted ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. “She finds her opponents’ weaknesses.” Raducanu practices quite a bit with fellow Brit and former No. 1 Andy Murray, a savvy tactician, who likely taught her a few things.
Emma Raducanu, of Britain (right) poses for photos with Leylah Fernandez, of Canada. – AP
An extremely relaxed Raducanu walked onto Ashe Stadium to face Fernandez in easily the most unlikely match-up in a Grand Slam final in history. It was ironic as because just two months earlier Raducanu had to retire from her Wimbledon fourth-round match because she had trouble breathing.
With both hard-hitting teens displaying the poise of veterans from the start, Raducanu drew figurative first blood. (Fernandez would literally draw blood later.) On her sixth break point chance, her powerful serve return forced a forehand error from Fernandez to break serve for a 2-0 lead. The feisty Fernandez broke right back, converting her fourth break point, for 2-1.
Fernandez said studying soccer moves — her father was a former pro soccer player — translated to tennis tactics. But it was Raducanu, who was smarter and more consistent. Standing about 10 feet from the centre strip when serving slices in the deuce court, she repeatedly elicited errors and weak returns from the outstretch lefty backhand of Fernandez. “The offensive player is winning the point 85% of the time,” noted the commentator Mary Joe Fernandez, as Raducanu dictated most of the points with her greater power and topspin.
Raducanu grabbed the first set 6-4 with a forehand down-the-line winner on set point and then secured a pivotal service break for 4-2 in the second set when she stroked a forehand passing shot. Fernandez staved off two championship points and held serve but trailed 5-3.
With the crowd roaring for their favourite after every point, Raducanu served for the title. The suspense heightened when the Canadian slid on the court in a futile attempt to return a shot. Blood from her knee dribbled down her leg, and she was treated during a medical time-out for three minutes.
An angry Fernandez protested the break to referee Clare Wood, not knowing play must stop when there is bleeding.
When play resumed with Raducanu down break point, 30-40, the poised Canadian recovered, winning three of the next four points. She showed her athleticism with a leaping overhead placement, and on championship point, whacked a 108 mph ace.
“I don’t feel absolutely any pressure,” Raducanu said afterwards. “I’m still only 18 years old. I’m just having a free swing at anything that comes my way. That’s how I faced every match here in the States. It got me this trophy, so I don’t think I should change anything.”
Who could argue with that? In little more than a fortnight, the teen sensation had gone from qualifier to champion.
Despite the media ballyhooing of the men’s final — or perhaps because of it — the most consequential match of the last 50 years seemed anti-climactic.
It’s unfortunate that Djokovic turned in a lacklustre performance, but Medvedev deserves high praise for his impressive 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 triumph. The lanky, 6’6” Russian had been knocking on the door of greatness for the past three years as his ranking rose to No. 2. He’d won 11 of his 12 career titles on hard courts, his favourite surface.
Daniil Medvedev of Russia holds the trophy after defeating Novak Djokovic of Serbia during their men’s singles final. – AFP
Yet, he was foiled in two previous bids for a Grand Slam title. Nadal, who is sidelined and on crutches with a foot injury, edged Medvedev 6-4 in the fifth set of the 2019 U.S. Open final. And this February, Djokovic drubbed the Russian in the Australian Open final.
Perhaps, like Serena Williams who choked in the semifinals of the 2015 U.S. Open in her failed bid for a Grand Slam, Djokovic simply wanted it too much. After conquering another Next Genner, Alexander Zverev in a gruelling five-setter in the semis, Novak said, “I am going for a fourth U.S. Open, that’s all I am thinking about. It is only one match left. I’m all in. I have to put my heart, soul, body… I am going to play this match like it’s the last match of my career.”
Perhaps, even though IBM’s much vaunted Watson gave Djokovic a 51% chance of winning, his form for most of the tournament didn’t warrant a championship. After all, he had dropped the first set in five of his six previous matches.
The Serb flashed championship form in only parts of two matches. After his 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 quarterfinal victory over sixth-seeded Matteo Berrettini, Djokovic said, “The best three sets I’ve played in the tournament, for sure.” And he markedly raised his game in the fifth set of his 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 triumph over fourth-seeded Zverev. That the greatest serve returner in tennis history broke the rocket-serving German’s serve three times in the deciding set raised hopes that he could break the powerful serve of Medvedev often enough in the final. A less optimistic conclusion, though, is that Zverev often falters in crunch time, given his 0-10 career record against top 10 opponents at Grand Slam tournaments.
In any event, Medvedev had cruised through six matches, surrendering only one set. That came against an unknown qualifier from the Netherlands with a big serve and a hard-to-pronounce name, Botic Van de Zandschulp, in a 6-3, 6-0, 4-6, 7-5 semifinal. Capitalising on an easy draw, Medvedev faced only two seeds. He routinely disposed of No. 24 Dan Evans, a talented but undersized (5’9”) Englishman 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 and an erratic No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. Serving at 5-4 in the second set, the athletic 21-year-old Canadian blew two sets points, the second on a dreadful forehand volley error, and then collapsed. Medvedev seized 15 of the next 17 points.
On his success at the U.S. Open, Medvedev explained, “I like the surface, the balls, the conditions, the temperature.” He’s also bonded with the New York fans, a stark contrast with the rocky relationship at the 2019 tournament. There he played the villain for a while, even giving spectators the finger, before they embraced him during his final with Nadal.
Djokovic had seldom been a fan favourite at the U.S. Open, and Novak didn’t help matters during his first-round match against Holger Rune, an 18-year-old Dane. When spectators chanted the kid’s last name, Novak misinterpreted their cheers for an underdog, instead thinking fans were booing him. But after that misstep, the fans warmed to him and encouraged this great champion determined to make history.
The handsome superstar, sadly, was flat and out of sorts from the first point to the last. A double fault and two unforced forehand errors helped Medevev break his serve in the opening game. When he nervously netted a terrible drop shot and double faulted to fall behind love-2, 0-30, ESPN analyst John McEnroe aptly said, “Now you see why it’s so tough to win the Grand Slam.”
Meanwhile, Medvedev kept serving phenomenally. Varying his speed and placement, he would win 81% of his first-serve points and an equally impressive 58% of his second-serve points. Tactically, the speedy Russian produced a masterclass of high-percentage tennis from the backcourt, winning most of the long rallies with patience and defence, but attacking when he got a short ball. He also countered Djokovic’s net approaches effectively with passing shots at his feet. As ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said, “He’s a chess master. Every move Djokovic has made, Medvedev is one move ahead.”
Djokovic finally got his only service break of the final, but it was too late and it came chiefly from three double faults by Medvedev. The Russian still led comfortably, 5-3.
The crowd cheered loudly to support Djokovic, who was still hanging in there. After he held serve to narrow to make it 5-4, the cheers brought a brief smile to his face. Then, sensing his bid for a Grand Slam was nearly over, he wept behind his towel.
Chants of “Nole! Nole!” reverberated throughout Ashe Stadium, but Medvedev quickly raced to a 40-15 lead with three great points, highlighted by a forehand winner.
A weak backhand serve return erred ended Djokovic’s misery along with his quest for the first men’s Grand Slam since Rod Laver’s in 1969 on grass at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills.
John McEnroe summed up Djokovic’s downfall best. “The combination of fatigue and pressure did him in. The legs weren’t there today.”
A Djokovic partisan held up a banner proclaiming, “Like It Or Not, Greatest Of All Time.” The next year or so may determine that because this final certainly didn’t.
Always gracious in defeat, the Serb said, “Congratulations to Daniil. An amazing match and an amazing tournament. If there is anyone who deserves a grand slam title, it is you.” Then, despite his deep disappointment, Djokovic gave one of his most poignant speeches to the crowd.
“I would like to say that tonight, even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy and I’m the happiest man alive, because you guys made me feel very special,” Djokovic said. “You guys touched my soul. I’ve never felt like this in New York, honestly. I’ve never felt like this. I love you guys. Thank you so much for your support. I love you and I’ll see you soon.”