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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

It’s their time: Historic women’s final will cap an Open defined by new, young star power

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    Ohm YoungmisukESPN Staff Writer

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      Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.



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NEW YORK — As the No. 2 player in the world was imploding with her second consecutive double fault at the worst time, Leylah Fernandez turned and glared toward her player’s box, where family and even Brooklyn Nets head coach and Canadian basketball legend Steve Nash sat on the edges of their seats.

Nothing has rattled the unflappable Fernandez, who pumped her fist several times and nodded her head at her team. One point later, tennis’ newest teen sensation collapsed to the court, her hands covering her face almost in disbelief.

It was seemingly the only time during her riveting run that the 19-year-old stood on wobbly legs.

“It’s magical,” the Canadian woman said Thursday night after she upset her third top-five ranked opponent, Aryna Sabalenka, to reach the US Open final with a 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4 victory.

Two hours later, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu flung her racket and put her hands on the top of her head as she made the evening a historic one. She dispatched No. 18 Maria Sakkari in straight sets and joined Fernandez in the first men’s or women’s all-unseeded major final in the Open era.

“Honestly, I can’t believe it,” said Raducanu, who recalls last facing Fernandez in juniors. “A shock. Crazy. All of the above.”

When the US Open began, all the talk was about who wasn’t here and how there was no sizzle to the tournament. But Fernandez and Raducanu have turned the Open into their own teen party, becoming the fresh faces of a youth movement that has swept tennis by surprise. With Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena and Venus Williams on the mend, a new generation has emerged with the likes of Fernandez, Raducanu, Carlos Alcaraz, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Jenson Brooksby introducing themselves in style.

While this Open will be defined by whether or not Novak Djokovic makes history and completes a calendar Grand Slam, perhaps it will also be remembered as the start of a new era for refreshing new talents such as Fernandez and Raducanu. The last time the US Open women’s final was an all-teen affair, Serena started her dominance as the then 17-year-old defeated 18-year-old Martina Hingis in 1999.

In the ’80s and ’90s, tennis was spoiled with teenagers like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Hingis and the Williams sisters, who made their own magical runs to start Hall of Fame careers. But the greatness and dominance of today’s legends have held down the next generation, and the generation after that, for so long it’s easy to forget what it was like to have a wave of teenagers making noise at the same time.

Before Fernandez and Raducanu, only three teenagers had reached the women’s quarterfinals at the US Open between 2010 and 2020. On the men’s side, seven of the eight quarterfinalists this year were 25 or younger (two of them 21 or younger). The last time that happened at a major was Wimbledon in 2007.

It feels like it’s been a good minute since we have seen a group of youngsters put on a show into the second week of a major. While there are 25-and-under contenders on both sides, a new wave under them has emerged here. And each prospect hopes to prove this isn’t a mere flash, not just another instance of a Broadway understudy shining for a single fortnight in New York.

“We’re all just super hungry to make a difference in the tennis world,” Fernandez said. “I’ve known a few of them from the junior tours. We’ve always talked about and joked around that we’re going to be in the WTA Tour, we’re going to be on the big stage together.

“We want to make a difference. We want to make an impact in tennis. This tournament just proves how well we’re adapting to everything.”

The night before Fernandez delivered the Open’s first massive upset by stunning defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round, the Canadian was taking down as many mental notes as she could during an unforgettable dinner in New York with a Hall of Famer.

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario sat down with Fernandez, her mother, Irene Exevea, and fitness coach Duglas Cordero and shared some insight and tips. Fernandez listened to everything and it has shown in her play. In many ways, Sanchez-Vicario is the perfect dinner partner for Fernandez. The former world No. 1 won the French Open three times and US Open once with a relentless tenacity that made her one of the toughest players in the history of the game.

Like Sanchez-Vicario, Fernandez is 5-foot-6 but plays bigger than her stature. She absorbed and countered Osaka’s power, survived one of the Tour’s all-time fighters in Angelique Kerber, continued to show poise beyond her years when she beat fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina in a nail-biting third-set breaker and outlasted Sabalenka in three. Her run over three top-five seeds ties for the most by any woman at a US Open with Virginia Wade (1968) and Serena (1999), and both those women went on to win the title.

“Sanchez-Vicario was known as feisty, never give up, always had a lot of belief,” said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, who reached the US Open women’s final as a 16-year-old in 1978. “Even when she wasn’t playing well, she still walked around with an air of confidence. That would be a great mentor for Leylah.”

Fernandez came into the Open ranked No. 73 in the world but with a mental toughness more suited for someone with a higher ranking. Fernandez said she was toughened up by the obstacles and doubts she and her family faced over the years. Exevea had to move from Canada to California and live apart from the family when Fernandez was 10 to 13 to help pay for their tennis expenses. And there was the sixth-grade teacher who also told Leylah “to stop playing tennis, you will never make it, and just focus on school.”

Fernandez isn’t the only teen garnering the attention of one of the sport’s all-time greats. On the other side of the bracket, Raducanu was making her own waves as a qualifier who hasn’t dropped a set. During her 6-2, 6-1 fourth-round victory over Shelby Rogers, she was floored to learn Wade, the last British woman to win a Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 1977, was in attendance. The 18-year-old ran up to Wade in the Presidential Suite and thanked the 76-year-old great for watching.

“She is going to win Grand Slams, for sure,” Wade told ESPN after the exchange.

Raducanu’s meteoric rise has been remarkable. She started the year ranked No. 338 and had never even played a tour-level match until three months ago. But Raducanu has made history since, becoming the first qualifier to reach a US Open final and youngest British woman in the Open era to reach the Round of 16 at Wimbledon before retiring due to breathing difficulties against Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic.

“If you had told me the young one that was making a push to win the tournament here, I thought it would have been Coco Gauff,” ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert said of the American, who lost in the second round against Sloane Stephens, but is still alive in women’s doubles. “I saw Raducanu at Wimbledon, but I didn’t think she was at this level. It is cool seeing these young players blossom because you see something out of nowhere that you didn’t see coming and see it unfold.

“You have to pinch yourself sometimes to remember that these things can still happen.”

When the US Open men’s tournament draw is released, James Blake knows all too well what many players are thinking as they search the brackets for their names.

“A lot of players in this generation would look at a draw and say, ‘OK, there’s Novak, there’s Roger, there’s Rafa,'” the ESPN tennis analyst and former world No. 4 said. “They’ll look to see if they are in that other kind of softer spot where, ‘I am going to miss them until the quarterfinals or semifinals and that is sort of my goal.’ Because a lot of them saw [the Big Three] as sort of that wall.”

Since 2003, the Big Three have combined to win 60 Grand Slams, eclipsing so many would-be next stars who never shined. But with Federer, Nadal and defending champ Dominic Thiem out, there was a rare feeling buzzing through the men’s locker room this year.

“I see like guys are foaming in the mouth, like it’s pretty funny to watch,” said American Frances Tiafoe, who reached the fourth round before falling in four sets against Auger-Aliassime. “I’m in the locker room cracking up. Guys are hungry. Guys are like, ‘There’s a f—ing opening, like I got to f—ing push.'”

Brooksby tried pushing Djokovic, taking the first set 6-1 in front of a delirious Ashe Stadium crowd before falling in four sets to the top seed. By reaching the second week, though, Brooksby became the youngest American to reach the Round of 16 since 20-year-old Andy Roddick in 2002.

“He’s 20. He’s got plenty of time,” said Djokovic, who was impressed by the American. “I have to congratulate him and say that I was impressed with his game but also with his behavior. I think we’re going to see a lot of him in the future.”

Another player who emerged, one many believe was just scratching the surface here, is Alcaraz, the 18-year-old Spanish talent who has drawn comparisons to Nadal. Alcaraz shocked third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 0-6, 7-6 (5) in perhaps the match of the tournament. During that fifth set, Alcaraz showed poise and electric ground strokes that had star written all over him. And like Fernandez’s match against Osaka, the Ashe crowd played a role by throwing itself behind the underdog.

“The MVP [of the Open’s first week] has been the crowd getting behind some of these players that I didn’t see coming and it lifted their games,” Gilbert said. “Alcaraz would have been toast against Tsitsipas at the end of that fourth set had the crowd not absolutely just lifted him.”

Auger-Aliassime, who turned 21 in August, stopped Alcaraz’s run in the youngest matchup in a major quarterfinal or later since the 2006 French Open. That, by the way, was when a 20-year-old named Nadal defeated a 19-year-old named Djokovic in their first meeting.

Daniil Medvedev, the steady if not unspectacular second seed who has been pressing closer to win a major, watched the match knowing he would be facing the first men’s player born in the 2000s to make a Slam semifinal. Medvedev, 25, couldn’t help but feel a little old.

“I’m not a ‘Next Gen’ anymore,” Medvedev joked.

Fernandez dreamt of this when she was little and her racket was bigger than her. She imagined herself, at every Grand Slam, playing Justine Henin, Serena, Venus and for the past few years, Osaka.

“When I was younger, I’ve always seen myself being in a big stadium in front of so many people and just having fun on the court,” she said.

And who won those imaginary matches?

“I did,” Fernandez said with a smile.

The hope is these younger players will keep pushing each other like the greats of the past in their respective generations, that the pressure and expectations that will come with this showing will not overwhelm them and their careers. Too many teen prodigies have faded away all too often.

“We have to be patient with these teenagers,” Shriver said. “While we see how they are playing now, you just never know what is going on in women’s tennis. Are they going to maintain this form? Is this a one-off, or is this going to be a one-off for another year or two and they get back on track? There have been too many examples to even go through of young players making their first major breakthrough at a Slam and not following it up with any consistency.”

But this Open and these young prospects feel different. Sakkari said Fernandez and Raducanu are “fearless.” And as for that teacher who told Fernandez she would never become a pro, the Canadian hasn’t forgotten.

“I think now I can say that I’ve done a pretty good job in achieving my dreams,” Fernandez said with a smile.

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