In a turn of events that is on its way to matching Team GB’s Olympics and England’s Euros as the highlight of Britain’s sporting summer, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu continued her fairy-tale American journey by making the US Open final last night, after a straight sets victory over Maria Sakkari.
Sakkari, the 17th seed and French Open semi-finalist, was expected by many to be one step too far for Raducanu, but, as with all of her performances at the tournament so far, she dealt with her opponent confidently, sweeping her aside 6-1, 6-4 to set up a final against fellow teenager Leylah Fernandez on Saturday.
This has been a truly remarkable tournament for Raducanu, whose rapid ascent to the upper echelons of the world game is almost beyond belief. As of yet, she has only competed in four senior tournaments, and two Grand Slams, so to make a final appearance this early on is almost unprecedented.
She had started to make her name with her performance at Wimbledon, where she made the last 16, but her performance at Flushing Meadows suggests that she could well be set for a spell of dominance in the women’s game for years to come.
As has been perhaps the one weakness of her tournament so far, Raducanu got off to a relatively shaky start against Sakkari, facing seven break points in her opening two service games. However, on both occasions she held serve, and from then on she dominated Sakkari, whose frustration understandably increased as the game wore on.
She broke Sakkari, and from then on the first set was virtually decided, as she raced into a 6-1 lead to take the set. What is remarkable about Raducanu is that she is unfazed and prepared for whatever her opponent throws at her. Whether a hard server like Shelby Rogers, who she beat in the quarter-finals, or a more agile player like Sakkari, Raducanu showed that she is up for any challenge presented to her.
As Sakkari steadily seemed to lose her head as her shots went off target, Raducanu only increased her intensity, working tirelessly and not providing a single opening for Sakkari to exploit.
This calmness under pressure and intensity was epitomised in the final point of the match. Having broke early in the second set to lead 2-1, the games steadily mounted up into becoming a 5-4 lead for Raducanu, who was all of a sudden serving for the match.
Watching tennis, we have become accustomed to the first match point of a match not coming to anything, as the nerves and pressure of the occasion get to a player, who needs three or even four chances to win.
Tonight, being under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium, it’s so iconic and I think I was just thriving in the moment.
– Emma Raducanu
As always, however, Raducanu was composed, moving Sakkari across the court and setting up a volley which, although relatively simple, could easily have been driven long. Raducanu put it away easily, even nonchalantly, and was on her way to the US Open final.
This was the 9th match for Raducanu at the tournament, as, due to her low rank, she had to come through the qualifiers, and the fact that she hasn’t even dropped a set in any of these 9 games is remarkable.
Raducanu was understandably shocked by her own achievement, describing it as ‘crazy, cool and absolutely mind-blowing’ in her post-match interview.
“I never thought it would come this early to be in a Grand Slam final,” she said, “I’m really enjoying my time in New York and that’s showing in my tennis. Tonight, being under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium, it’s so iconic and I think I was just thriving in the moment.”
On Saturday, Raducanu will be in the unusual position of being, if not the favourite, but at least on par with her opponent in terms of age and experience. The Canadian 19-year-old Fernandez has had a similarly outstanding tournament, with the calibre of her opponents if anything more remarkable than Raducanu.
Her route to final has included victories over 2nd and 3rd seeds Elina Svitolina and Naomi Osaka, while also beating players like Angelique Kerber, who have proven their ability in the past.
Raducanu has beaten Fernandez in junior competitions, but, in from of a full Arthur Ashe stadium, it will be a whole different ball game, and will take the game of her life for Raducanu to triumph.
However, as of yet, she has been cool, calm, and collected, and you certainly wouldn’t bet against her overcoming this final hurdle.