US Open 2021 women’s final: Does Leylah Fernandez or Emma Raducanu have the edge?

Sports

In a very unexpected US Open women’s final, we have two teenagers — Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu — making their first appearances in the final round of a Grand Slam event. Honestly, who would have guessed this pairing? Or even that just one of these women would make it to the end?

Our experts break down what has impressed them from both of these young players, what advice they would give them and finally, which one they think will be crowned champion.

What has been the most impressive part of Fernandez’s game during her US Open run?

James Blake: Her steadfast approach to her game plan and sticking to it. She stays on the baseline and does not back up.

Bill Connelly: It has to be her resilience, right? She has now beaten Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka consecutively, all in three sets. That’s four completely different players, all with more experience, and, in the case of the first two, multiple Slam titles. And in each match, she was the more consistent and resilient player. That’s absurd. She had won four career Slam matches before this run. And then she beat those four in a row.

Cliff Drysdale: Fernandez is not overwhelmed by the occasion. She plays without fear.

Brad Gilbert: Her resilience and problem-solving when a set and a break down. She hits the right shots in the third set and keeps composure under pressure. And it’s amazing how fans have gravitated toward her.

Aishwarya Kumar: Her deep forehand crosscourt return. If you watch Fernandez closely, you’ll notice that her shot comes from her hips. She angles her hip — and her entire body — as she swings the racket, and that’s what gets her that deep angle that drives her opponent off the court. Then, she follows that up with a straight ripper that nobody — not even sprinters like Osaka and Svitolina — is equipped to run toward and return on time. It’s lethal, and it’s probably one of the best forehands I’ve seen in a long time.

D’Arcy Maine: It’s hard to pick just one thing, but I’ve been astounded by her resolve and self-belief throughout this tournament. The list of her opponents is essentially a who’s who of the WTA — Osaka, Kerber, Svitolina and Sabalenka — and she has been able to find a way to scrap for victories and force comebacks. She’s not fazed by the pressure, the stage or the moment, and she does what she knows she can do and seems to have a lightning-fast ability to adjust to the game style of the person across the net. It has truly been something special to watch

Pam Shriver: Her mindset. It’s unusual to have four straight challenging, three-set matches like she has, so deep into a major. It means, yes, you are playing great tennis, but it also means you are handling the mental part of your game, as well. Sometimes, it’s easier to train the mind when you’re young. I don’t know enough about how much mindset training Fernandez has had, but I do get the sense this has become a priority for many players, especially since the pandemic hit. Twenty years ago, the top players started bringing in physios or trainers onto their teams; now, the most important person on your team outside of your primary coach is who you are using for your mindset training. Look at Iga Swiatek and her 2020 French Open win — she credited her sports psychologist as part of her road to success. While sitting courtside on Thursday night for Fernandez’s semifinal match against Sabalenka, there was a great contrast between the players’ temperaments. Sabalenka was getting frustrated and slamming her racket, while Fernandez’s energy was all positives, like bringing the crowd in and quieting her mind during breaks. That’s a huge advantage.

Rennae Stubbs: Her fighting spirit. She has refused to give up against some of the biggest names in women’s tennis. Her willingness to continue to go for her shots in those moments has been impressive — even fearless.

Ohm Youngmisuk: Her mental toughness and maturity to take out three top-five players, tying Virginia Wade and Serena Williams for the most in a single US Open. She has been tested in every which way — overcoming Osaka in three sets for her breakthrough, out-grinding Kerber in three sets, stunning Svitolina in a third-set tiebreaker — and she was unflappable in a three-set semifinal win that saw Sabalenka implode in the final game. Her poise, maturity and mental toughness are all way beyond her age and ranking.

What has been the difference for Raducanu in reaching her first Slam final?

Blake: Her handling of the pressure. She has all the shots, but she is prepared at such a young age to handle the moment.

Connelly: Nobody can take her off her game! Nearly every ball she hits is clean, hard and within about 6 inches of a line. It’s like if Simona Halep just discovered a way to get an extra 10 mph on every shot she hits, and it has made her unstoppable. Her draw wasn’t incredibly difficult until the past two rounds, but the fact that she hasn’t dropped a set — and she has let only one set go to even 5-all — in qualifying for the main draw is astounding. One of the best Slam performances we’ve seen on the women’s side in decades, and it’s by an 18-year-old qualifier.

Drysdale: Raducanu learned at Wimbledon that she has the shots and speed to play with the best. She, like Fernandez, has perfect stroke fundamentals.

Gilbert: Great draw through the QFs, didn’t play anybody in top 40, great starts — 17 of her 18 sets have been 6-4 or less, and only one went to 7-5. She does a great job of stalking the baseline, taking time away from her opponents and playing with big margins.

Kumar: Raducanu has largely flown under the radar and plays every match like it is her last . After her quarterfinal win, she said she didn’t expect to be here, that she had tickets booked for after the qualifiers. And her game reflects her carefree attitude, which is why she is in the final.

Maine: Raducanu showed she had the talent to go deep at Slams during her breakthrough performance at Wimbledon earlier this summer, but now she has proven she is the complete package. There is so little that separates the top players in terms of skills and ability, and getting to this stage is as much mental as anything else. Not only has she continued to advance through the fortnight but she has done it without dropping a set. That level of dominance is otherworldly from someone ranked outside of the top 100 (until Monday, that is).

After her win against Maria Sakkari, she was asked how she would handle the next 48 hours, and her answer seemed to perfectly sum up her attitude regarding her entire run in New York: “Is there expectation? I mean, technically I’m a qualifier, so there’s no pressure on me.”

Shriver: Emma has had such a different journey to the final. Where Fernandez has been challenged, Raducanu hasn’t dropped a set yet, in qualifying and the tournament. In past majors, we’d say that about the greats of the game doing that, not an 18-year-old qualifier. I didn’t know who Raducanu was before Wimbledon; if you would have told me during the final weekend of Wimbledon to look into my crystal ball of women’s tennis and say Emma would be in the US Open final, I would have said, “Not a chance in the world.” But now, having seen this tournament, it points to the unpredictability and great parity of women’s tennis, which has opened opportunities for all players. Think of some of those past great breakthrough matches: Francesca Schiavone beating Sam Stosur to win the 2010 French Open, or Flavia Pennetta posting one of the biggest upsets in history by beating Serena Williams (who was vying for the Calendar Slam) in the 2015 US Open semifinals en route to the Italian’s lone Slam singles title, and most recently, Barbora Krejcikova winning this year’s title at Roland Garros. If you are Raducanu and Fernandez, you see these matches, you see Krejcikova, and you share the belief that you have a chance to win. It’s a much different narrative than the one going through men’s players on that side of the draw.

Stubbs: Composure. The fact she hasn’t lost a set this tournament is unbelievable. It shows you how in the moment she is staying and her focus. Most players have some kind of a mental letdown, but she has shown how clear her thinking has been throughout.

Youngmisuk: Raducanu has had the easier path to the final as she has faced only two, double-digit seeded players. Still, she has been awfully impressive in not dropping a set and doing this after surviving the qualifying draw. She not only looks composed out there for her age and experience but is fearless and playing with nothing to lose.

You’re coaching Fernandez. What one strategy are you giving her as she faces Raducanu?

Blake: Stick with her game plan and always look to strike first. Don’t let her be the one to move you.

Connelly: Do whatever you can to make her uncomfortable. Vary your shot speeds and heights, use drop shots — even if they don’t work for winners, they’re making her react to you — and hope that one way or another you can knock her off of this freight train rhythm she has going right now.

Drysdale: Vary your serve direction. Understand that her ground game is about equal to yours, so very few points will make the difference. Fight like hell.

Gilbert: I treat it like the first or second round of a regular tournament. No mention of this title; focus on tactics and what you are trying to do to your opponent and what your opponent might do to you.

Kumar: Fernandez needs to run Raducanu off the court as many times as possible. Raducanu rarely misses balls; she is somehow in the far end of the court and then suddenly by the net the next second. The only few times Sakkari was able to win a point in the semifinals was by sending Raducanu so far off the court, and even then she barely missed her next shot. Fernandez needs to serve big — and deep — and then follow it up with her straight forehand shots, still as deep on the other end of the court as possible.

Another piece of advice: Work the crowd. Raducanu has not had instances where she’s overwhelmed by the crowd making a lot of noise — or not rooting for her. So, get the crowd going and see if the U.K. teen, who has played only once under the lights, in her semifinals, is able to handle that pressure.

Maine: As a first-time major final for both, this will be as much a battle of nerves as anything else. I would just remind her of what got her here, tell her to play her game and, most importantly, to continue to believe in herself. It’s just another match.

Shriver: For Fernandez, the foundation of her physical game is standing on the baseline and using that forehand as a left-handed player. For an opponent, you’re likely not used to having to return a lefty’s serve and how the spin comes at you in a different way. This will always be valuable currency on a tennis court. Also, even in a final, she has to keep that mindset. Only show the positives, no matter what. You cannot show your opponent or the people watching on TV anything negative. If you don’t literally show it, you might not be thinking it, either. Remember what she said after her upset of Osaka, when she was asked when was the moment in the match when she believed she could beat the four-time Slam champ. Fernandez’s answer: As soon as she walked onto the court. That should be her mantra for the final.

For Raducanu, if she wins in straight sets and runs the table from qualifying to the title, it will be one of the greatest feats in tennis history. And given that she hasn’t faced any precarious situations up to this point, I’d want her to be prepared for those potential challenges against Fernandez. What if you are in a tiebreak or down a set? Do some visualization and mind work to help yourself walk through what you would do if you had to rally to win. As we’ve seen from Sakkari in this tournament, it’s great when your serve is working. I was surprised to see how much pop Raducanu’s serve has had, so I’d tell her to continue to be brave with it and not be hesitant to hit the spots. I would also advise her team to maybe get her a lefty hitting partner, even for 20 minutes, to get familiar with it. To win the major, you have to be willing to hit the spots with your serve and passing shots. For both finalists, their instincts are serving them well in the tournament, so I wouldn’t be changing the game plan too much just because it’s the final. Don’t pile too much on them when the plan is working.

Stubbs: Don’t change anything. Play up on the baseline and control the pace of the point.

Youngmisuk: Make Raducanu have to grind. In her past three wins, Raducanu has had to play only a total of 22 points in which the rallies were nine or more shots. Somehow, Fernandez has to make Raducanu feel more uncomfortable than she has been so far.

There has been much discussion around younger players and handling the pressures of early success. In that regard, what advice would you give to the Raducanu and Fernandez camps?

Blake: Enjoy the moment. Play tennis the way you know how to and have been preparing for.

Connelly: This is really the biggest question moving forward. The both seem incredibly grounded and well-managed, and they haven’t yet given us a reason to think they can’t handle what’s ahead. But there’s no question that it’s a different ballgame when you’re both (a) expected to win (as they will be moving forward) and (b) marked as a circle-the-date opponent for everyone else. Plenty of teenage champions have handled that adjustment perfectly, but others haven’t, and I’m not sure you can really predict it in advance. It’s an entirely new challenge.

Drysdale: Pace your early career so you don’t burn out. There have been many teenage champions who thrived. Your fundamentals are in place.

Gilbert: They don’t need advice, they are here and earned their way. It’s the first teen final since 1999, and I hope for a great match with 7-6 in the third. Worst thing to talk about with a player is nerves. Talk about tactics. I have never mentioned a Grand Slam final as a coach to one of my players; it’s just another match.

Kumar: I’d ask them to stay away from social media, at least for a while. And, be selective with giving interviews. And, go off on vacations where nobody knows them or will care that they are there.

Maine: Having seen Osaka’s very public struggles, even during this tournament, should hopefully make both players’ teams proceed with caution. Raducanu and Fernandez are both the walking embodiment of the phrase “overnight sensation,” and what comes next could be overwhelming. They are going to need to find the balance between embracing their newfound fame (and the perks that come with it) and normalcy. Hopefully they both have people on their teams who will shield them as much as possible and keep them grounded, focused and, most importantly, happy and healthy.

Shriver: There have been examples of young players who have struggled after doing well at majors, and it’s going to be different for every individual. Having said that, you have to have someone on your team who has your best interests at heart. And I’m talking about the whole player, not about the finances, not about the training hard for the next tournament — someone who really knows you well and can help make smart decisions to keep a balance, while keeping your career and game on the right track. It’ easier said than done, because money and opportunities that distract from a player’s development will quickly be at the doorsteps of Fernandez and Raducanu. It takes a very disciplined agent who understands that, if they pile on too much for the short-term income win, it can hurt the long-term plan. There needs to be a “CEO” of sorts that has the player’s best interests at heart.

Stubbs: Be selective in what you say “yes” to. Be smart with your time and stay focused on continuing to be a better tennis player every day. Keep your head down and try to never lose the joy of the competition.

Youngmisuk: Whatever their camps are doing, it’s working. Both teens strike me as mature, with good heads on their shoulders and humble. With that said, both sides should know that time is on their side and that there is no rush. Keep letting them develop and mature at their pace, and don’t let them get burned out or lose their joy. We’ve seen too many teens fizzle out for a variety of reasons. Right now, they both love what they’re doing and are having fun. Keep it that way.

Predictions: Who will win and why?

Blake: Raducanu. I think she will be able to hit to the corners enough to put Fernandez on defense a bit.

Connelly: The only two evidence-based answers are Raducanu in two sets or Fernandez in three, right? Either Fernandez takes Raducanu out of her rhythm and turns this into the type of dogfight she has so brilliantly handled of late or Raducanu blows Fernandez off the court as she has done with everyone else. Give me Raducanu, I guess — although we’ve seen how close Fernandez has come to losing in recent matches, we haven’t seen Raducanu even stretched to a tiebreaker.

Drysdale:  Raducanu to win. It’s a coin toss, but she might have the advantage of low expectations, given that she had to qualify.

Gilbert: I am slightly leaning toward Radacanu based on 18 sets on trot, but I have not made my full study and final pick yet. Fernandez sometimes gets down and has had to problem-solve, and when you get down to Raducanu, she wins in straight sets. My early pick is Raducanu — if a football game, about a 3.5 point spread.

Kumar: Raducanu. The most impressive thing about the teenager — and a big reason she hasn’t lost a single set this entire tournament — is her precision. She goes for the big forehands and serves every single time, just like Fernandez, but the difference between the two is that while Fernandez has fewer of those key moments, Raducanu has those moments in every other point, in every other game. That’s why big hitters like Sakkari and Belinda Bencic couldn’t find a way around it — it was just happening so often that it was not possible to keep up. And that’s what will win her the championship on Saturday.

Maine: Even though Raducanu won their last meeting — in the second round of the 2018 Wimbledon juniors event — I’ll go Fernandez in three sets. Fernandez has proven she can go the distance and dig deep and, well, Raducanu hasn’t had to do that just yet.

Shriver: With my experience playing in the 1978 US Open final, I believed I could win every match along the way, including against top-seeded Martina Navratilova in the semifinals. Then, I had two days off, before facing Chrissie Evert in the final and my regret was going into the match not truly believing I could win. Sure, I played a good final and was satisfied I did the best I could; but, truth be told, before the match, I was just hoping to be competitive. You have to go out and believe you are walking out as a US Open champion. These two teenagers have the belief and I’ve never seen a run like this. This final matchup takes it to the next level, especially when you consider the limitations on the amount of matches teenagers can play, where they are usually ranked. Qualifying has been around a long time — this never happens!

I can see the match going either way. For obvious reasons, it so hard to predict because of their ages, inexperience and different paths to the final. If I have to pick, I will go with Raducanu, if only because of the ease in which she has reached the final. She will look at Fernandez as a similar opponent along her journey to the title. The elephant in the room: Will one of the two finally be overcome by the situation? That is also really hard to anticipate or predict.

Stubbs: Tennis is the winner with these two, and I honestly don’t know who will maintain her composure, but I might give a slight edge to Fernandez.

Youngmisuk: Fernandez gets the slight edge because she comes in more battle-tested, having gone through a gauntlet of top seeds. Raducanu is a cool customer and has buzz-sawed her way through the draw. But it just feels like Fernandez has been on a special run that will end with her holding up the trophy.

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