It's a bit like a game of spot the difference with Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu. Their profiles are similar, but with several traits all of their own. Both born in 2002 – the first turned 19 on 6 September, while the second will celebrate her birthday on 13 November – the princesses of this US Open 2021 each come from diverse cultural backgrounds. Fernandez, born in Montreal and raised in Canada, has Filipino roots on her mother's side and Ecuadorian on her father’s. Born in Toronto before growing up in the United Kingdom with British nationality, Raducanu has a Chinese mother and a Romanian father.
On court, neither of the two young women allow themselves to succumb to the pressure. Of course they feel it, like every player. “I was very nervous,” admitted Fernandez during the traditional on-court interview following her quarter-finals victory. But rather than bow under the weight of it, they brush it aside with a smile. Including after closely contested points, whether won or lost, at crucial moments of the match. “I think the key to success for me is having fun on the court,” explained Leylah Annie Fernandez, her full name, following her success in the round of 16.
“My attitude has always been to enjoy being on court,” she continued. “That is the attitude my mom and dad taught me to have in order to enjoy life. I chose this profession and I want to enjoy it as much as possible, to have fun. I think I was a happy and carefree girl from a very young age. I never take things too seriously. I have fun in everything I do.” It is the same story with Emma Raducanu. “Coming onto the court, I wanted to absorb all the energy in the stadium,” she reported, following her round of 16.
Pleasure in victory and crowd-winning charisma
“I was really trying to enjoy the moment,” she added. “To play at Arthur Ashe, the largest stadium in the world, is something I dreamed of. I wanted to be in the moment to fully experience it.” She already said in the previous tour that she had “lots of fun on court”. Amid a deafening roar that would make an Airbus A380 on take-off sound like a humming bird by comparison, the two “kids” displayed astonishing charisma. Playing with their frenzied fans and raising them to fever pitch with some spectacular points and fist pumps to blow the lid off the Flushing Meadows pressure cooker, they have established themselves as the darlings of the crowd.
After Barbara Gerken in 1981 and Kaia Kanepi in 2017, Raducanu became the third female player in history to reach the US Open quarter-finals straight from qualifying, with seven matches played, no sets lost. From the start of the main draw – her second in a Grand Slam following her surprise round of 16 at Wimbledon – she made her mark by crushing Voegele (6/2 6/3), Zhang (6/2 6/4), Sorribes Tormo (6 / 0 6/1) and Rogers (6/2 6/1). Fernandez – who had never gone beyond the third round of a major before – had some more bitterly-fought encounters to reach the semi-finals.
After a warm-up against the tenacious Konjuh (7/6 6/2) and Kanepi (7/5 7/5), her slim legs were pushed to their limits against WTA royalty including Osaka (5/7 7/6 6/4), Kerber (4/6 7/6 6/2) and Svitolina (6/3 3/6 7/6). Yet Fernandez managed to win all the decisive games, indicating emotional control and mental solidity worthy of a rock, against which the attacking waves break relentlessly – as well as great confidence in what she does. “Honestly, I’m not surprised it’s happening now,” she said after the Kerber game, as she made her debut on the main circuit aged 16.
Different journeys and strengths
“I have trained hard since the day I started playing tennis, since the day I set out to become professional,” added the current World 73, who already has a title (Monterey 2021). “I expected my game to enable me to pull off performances like these. It was only a matter of time, of opportunity, and I'm glad I seized it.” Raducanu, at 150th in the WTA rankings, had not taken part in any main circuit match before 2021. At Wimbledon, she was ranked 338th in the world. So she never imagined the level of excitement in New York, for her fourth big tournament.
“Personally, I am surprised that I’m here,” she admitted. “I knew I was doing a lot of great work that would pay off some day but you never know when. Being in the quarter-finals after not playing for 15 months (from late February 2020 to June 2021, due to the difficulty of being able to play ITF tournaments during the pandemic and his baccalaureate to pass) is just absolutely incredible.” In terms of play, the Canadian and British players both like to dictate the pace of the rally. While the first – who is smaller at 1.68m compared with 1.75m – has a little less striking power, she is more nimble.
Being left-handed, Leylah Fernandez is able to achieve angles, especially short crosses, that would make a mathematician envious. She shows more variety – slices, drop shots, volleys – than Emma Raducanu, whose movement is sharper on covered shots. “Technically, Emma is faultless,” said Daniela Hantuchová, former world number 5, on Amazon Prime. Although there is still a long way to go, if we are to believe the contradictory sayings “birds of a feather flock together” and “opposites attract”, the two prodigies, with all their similarities and differences, could end up clashing in an intense final.
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Sara Sorribes Tormo