Two teenage women who were barely known to anyone other than the most devout tennis fans before this U.S. Open will vie for the singles championship on Saturday in what has to be the most improbable matchup for a Grand Slam final since the modern era of tennis began more than 50 years ago.
On a Thursday night that would have been shocking had Emma Raducanu of Britain and Leylah Fernandez of Canada not been pulling rabbits out of their hats for the better part of two weeks, the two teenage sensations once again knocked off seasoned pros who exist in a different stratosphere in the world rankings.
First, Fernandez outlasted the second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, in three sets, 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4, in a nervy, error-filled match that saw both players let go of chances to put the battle away long before Sabalenka finished herself off with one last flurry of double faults. It was Fernandez’s fourth consecutive three-set win over one of the top 20 players in the world.
Then Raducanu took the stage at Arthur Ashe Stadium and did what she has been doing for more than a week — blitzing players far more accomplished and making them play their worst matches of the tournament. Raducanu ambushed the 17th-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece, 6-1, 6-4.
Raducanu, ranked 150th in the world, had to play three matches in the qualifying tournament just to get into the main draw. Including those three matches, she has now faced nine opponents in New York and has yet to drop a set. She is the first qualifier to reach the final of the U.S. Open in the Open era.
Both Raducanu, 18, and Fernandez, 19, have captivated the crowds in New York and pumped new life into the women’s tour that has been struggling to deal with the loss of its biggest star, Serena Williams, to age and injuries, and its newest one, Naomi Osaka, to her struggles with mental illness.
Then came Fernandez, the Canadian teen sensation, cruising into the finals.
With Steve Nash, the N.B.A. Hall of Famer and Nets coach watching from her box, and all of Canada and seemingly all of New York in her corner, Fernandez, ranked 73rd, continued a stunning run that has included victories over the second, third, fifth and 16th seeded players in the tournament. She beat Osaka and Angelique Kerber, the winners of a combined seven Grand Slam singles titles, then knocked off Elina Svitolina, who is considered one of the best players never to have won a Grand Slam tournament.
Then came Sabalenka, one of the world’s biggest hitters and its second-ranked player. At 23, she appeared poised this year to take the next step in her development. She has never made a Grand Slam final but lost in the semifinals at Wimbledon and backed that up with another trip to the final four at the U.S. Open.
In Fernandez, though, Sabalenka ran into a player who seems to have convinced herself that she cannot be beaten, that if she can just keep getting the ball back over the net with her brand of power and spin and guile, somehow the match will break her way.
It took two hours and 21 minutes for that moment to come, when she finished off the win, thanks to two ill-timed double faults from Sabalenka and one last error sailing off the court.
“Nothing’s impossible,” Fernandez said in a news conference after the match. “There’s no limit to what I can do.”
Fernandez became the second Canadian teenager in three years to make the final of the U.S. Open, following in the footsteps of Bianca Andreescu, who beat Williams to win the championship in 2019.
Like Andreescu, Fernandez has shot to the top seemingly out of nowhere. Though she had been inching her way up the rankings for the past three years, she had given little indication that she was on the verge of a breakthrough of this magnitude.
Fernandez came out jittery, lost her serve and was down 3-0 in the first set. Before long though, she had settled down and proved to be the perfect foil for Sabalenka’s high-octane game that leaves little margin for error. When Sabalenka doesn’t connect, she beats balls into the bottom half of the net or watches them sail five and six feet beyond the baseline, then flails her arms in frustration.
There was plenty of that on Thursday evening.
“I wouldn’t say that she did something. I would say that I destroyed myself,” Sabalenka said at the end of a frustrating night.
Sabalenka seemed to be making steady progress with a 4-2 lead in the first set, but then made a series of errors to let Fernandez back into the set, including a double fault on game point.
At the crucial moment of the first-set tiebreaker, with Fernandez holding a 4-3 lead, Sabalenka missed badly on an easy overhead, double-faulted, then bounced a Fernandez serve on set point into the net.
The second set looked like it was going to be a near carbon copy of the first. An early break for Sabalenka, then sloppiness to let Fernandez back into the frame. But then Fernandez cracked in the ninth game, giving Sabalenka a chance to serve out the set. She whirled her arms, begging for some support from the pro-Fernandez crowd.
On to the third set they went, trading service games into midway point, when Fernandez, holding a 3-2 lead, let Sabalenka hit herself into trouble, then blocked one of Sabalenka’s hardest serves of the night and watched Sabalenka’s shot float long. But Fernandez struggled with the prosperity, letting Sabalenka break her right back, and a game later knot the score at 4-4.
But Fernandez stayed cool, and a game later let Sabalenka take care of business for her. Eventually, things work out for this teenager, at least at this U.S. Open.
Sakkari, a semifinalist at the French Open, did Raducanu plenty of favors as well. Like Sabalenka, Sakkari rarely sees a ball that she does not want to crush, but too often Thursday night those balls could not find the court, allowing Raducanu to play a form of tennis rope-a-dope to clinch a spot on one of the biggest stages in the sport, against another teenager she may be playing for a very long time.