One of the most astonishing sporting stories has its fairytale ending. In front of 23,000 spectators last night on Arthur Ashe Stadium — the largest tennis venue in the world — an 18-year-old from Bromley, south London, completed a journey that started 17 days ago in the first round of qualifying and has remarkably ended with the US Open trophy and a cheque for £1.8 million in her hands.
Emma Raducanu is a grand-slam champion, the first British female singles player to go all the way at one of tennis’s four major tournaments since Virginia Wade marked the Silver Jubilee by winning Wimbledon in 1977. But this is an achievement that also has huge significance beyond our shores. Never before in the history of the sport has a qualifier, male or female, won a grand-slam title.
Raducanu, ranked No 150 in the world, produced yet another breathtaking display when it really mattered most. She defeated another teenage star in 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, the world No 73 from Canada, 6-4, 6-3 in one hour and 51 minutes, leaving some of the legends sitting courtside in some disbelief. Incredibly she did not drop a single set at Flushing Meadows this year, claiming 20 in a row from the start of qualifying for the title.
The numbers and records behind this astounding triumph are almost endless. Raducanu, who was making her US Open debut and had only played one previous major at Wimbledon, is the first woman to become a grand-slam champion after less than four appearances. She is also the youngest female grand-slam winner since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova triumphed on the grass of the All England Club in 2004.
When Raducanu stepped onto Wimbledon’s Court 18 for her first-round match on June 30, she was ranked No 338 in the world and No 10 in Britain. On Monday she rises to world No 23 and becomes the new British No 1, bringing to an end Johanna Konta’s 310-week reign.
This was the first time that two unseeded players had ever faced each other in a grand-slam final, Another point that did not go unnoticed by the statisticians on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — for which a ceremony of remembrance was held on Arthur Ashe Stadium — was that this was the first time that two players born after September 11, 2001, had met in the championship match here.
Both players walked out to ear-splitting cheers from a crowd hyped up to watch two emerging youngsters do battle. Many esteemed pundits struggled to separate the two in their pre-match predictions. Raducanu had produced a ruthless run through the draw, dismantling the games of her opponents in straight sets, while Fernandez had defeated Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka in four consecutive three-set matches leading up to the final.
The early stages lived up to expectations. Raducanu settled the nerves by crunching a backhand cross-court winner to seal a hold of serve in the opening game, and then immediately piled the pressure on with her blistering returns on the Fernandez serve. In a long and tense game, Raducanu eventually converted her sixth break point for 2-0 by forcing the error from Fernandez with a deep backhand return,
The baseline exchanges were already enthralling. Fernandez hit back by swinging big with her left-handed forehand and she claimed the break for 2-1 as Raducanu put a backhand into the net. Fernandez then drew level, with the courtside clock showing a duration of 27 minutes for the first four games.
Raducanu then found herself in a spot of bother at 3-3, 15-30, but as she has done throughout this tournament, kept her composure to dig herself out of a hole. A booming forehand winner down the line brought up game point at 40-30 and she took it by using her power to move Fernandez from side to side metres behind the baseline. Fernandez responded with a hold of her own from 15-30 for 4-4.
Raducanu moved to within one game of the set at 5-4 and sensed her opportunity. Using her clean ball-striking to great effect, she brought up four set points on the shaky Fernandez serve and steered a forehand winner down the line to take the 58-minute set. Turning to her box to celebrate, she then looked up towards the crowd and waved her arms in the air to encourage more noise.
The odds were looking good for Raducanu. Twenty-five of the last 26 US Open women’s singles finals had been won by the player who claimed the first set, the only exception being Osaka’s victory against Azarenka behind closed doors here last year.
Raducanu kept up the momentum with a comfortable hold in the first game of the second set. Fernandez started to show her frustration by muttering towards her coaching team, but she did well to avoid the match getting away from her at this stage, recovering from 40-0 down on her serve by winning five straight points for 1-1.
This threatened to be a turning point. Fernandez broke serve for 2-1 as Raducanu suddenly looked a little tight and dumped a backhand into the net. But again the Briton refused to let her head drop, immediately breaking back for 2-2 with the help of some fierce returns.
The closing stages were dramatic. A stunning forehand pass saw Raducanu break for 4-2 and she moved to within one game of the tile at 5-2. But she failed to convert two match points on the Fernandez serve, meaning that she had to serve it out herself.
Fernandez fought right until the end and brought up a break point at 30-40, but Raducanu was forced to take a medical timeout after badly grazing her leg and the match came to a halt for several minutes under rules which requires a stoppage when blood is showing. When she got back to her feet, she saved the break point and sealed a third match point with an ace out wide for a momentous triumph. Britain and the world has a new sporting superstar.