Emma Believer: The 2021 US Open

Published September 13, 2021, 7:27 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

US Open Women’s champion Emma Raducanu (right) and runner-up Leylah Fernandez (AFP)

As we close the books on this year’s US Open, the all-time big winners of the two-week tournament would be Emma, Daniil and the youth, mental toughness, Lacoste, women’s tennis in particular, and tennis and New York in general. Here’s why:

Emma Raducanu will forever be the 2021 US Open darling, and it’ll be a mutual love-love relationship, as she’ll forever look back at this Open as the one that started it all. It’s too early to predict what sort of tennis career she’ll have; but with this one Slam fairy-tale journey, she’s carved out a niche that’s hers’ to own. First ever qualifier to win a Slam, the youngest since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004, and the first British woman to win a Slam since Virginia Wade snared Wimbledon in 1977 – that’s 44 years of waiting! And it was so cool to have Wade in attendance during the Women’s Finals.

The other record that Emma now holds is the fewest Slams played before winning one. This year’s Wimbledon, where she reached the fourth Round, was her Slam debut, and she’s now won a Slam after participating in only two. Both Monica Seles and Bianca Andreescu competed in four Slams, before they won one.

Leylah Fernandez (Canada), Women’s finalist and fellow fairy-tale partner to Emma, and Carlos Alcaraz-Garfia (Spain, quarterfinalist), are the other teenagers who stamped their presence during this Open. Leylah brought down three Top 10 seeds on her fantastical journey. While ranked in the 60’s, coupled with Emma’s unheard of 150th ranking, this was two unseeded players reaching the Final for the first time – and the last time two teenagers were in a Slam Final would be Serena Williams and Martina Hingis, which happened a long time ago.

Mental toughness came out a big winner and these two unseeded players, Leylah and Emma, were the epitomes of how important this was beyond physical skills and talent. During the Finals, scraping her knee at a crucial point in the second set, and still finishing it off after a medical timeout to tend to her bleeding knee, put Emma on a different level of mental fortitude.

Novak Djokovic is a proven and tested warrior when it comes to mental toughness – and it was crazy watching him lose the first set in three consecutive matches – to Kei Nishikori, Matteo Berrettini, and Alexander Zverev, and make it look like it was all part of a plan to wear them down and eventually take those matches. And it was mental toughness, or the lack of it, that brought Zverev down in their semifinal. After winning the fourth set, pundits were saying he was on a roll, and should take the fifth and deciding set. But he unraveled, playing so many loose points, early in the decider.

For the Men’s Final, before the match, sportswriters were already calling this a lock for Novak, thereby securing a Calendar Slam (first since Rod Laver, who did it twice, in 1962 and 1969), plus annexing his 21st Slam title. Seeing this as a foregone conclusion, some were humorously calling it game set and match to Lacoste – as both Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev, the other finalist, are endorsers of the French sports apparel brand.

This was Medvedev’s third appearance in a Slam Final, losing to Nadal over five sets in the 2019 US Open, and losing to Djokovic in straight sets at this year’s Australian. Not to be denied at his third opportunity, Daniil surprised and shocked everyone with a clinical, straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory. For this year at least, the talk of Novak as the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) is suspended, as he’s still seeking his 21st Slam – and he’s tied at 20 with Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. And Rod Laver still has his running Calendar Slam record intact.

Women’s tennis got back on the map in a big way with these two unseeded teenagers, and how they inspired so many – making tennis and the US Open clickbait topics on social media all over the world. And it really was a global affair, thanks in part to the ethnic diversity of the players who were trending – while Emma plays for Great Britain, she has a Romanian father and Chinese mother, and Leylah from Canada, has a father from Ecuador, and a mom of Filipino descent.

Tennis in general, with the rewriting of the tennis history book, was similarly the big winner. So many firsts, as recounted above, and so much good feelings emanating from the tournament. After this year’s Wimbledon and the French Open playing to empty stands or very limited audiences, it was refreshing to see full stadiums. It was New York rolling out the red carpet, and making tennis fun again. Not just about the competition; but also about the boisterous crowds enjoying tennis as a spectator sport.

Thanks to the US Open and New York City, for two glorious weeks, it was like the world was putting the COVID pandemic in the rear-view mirror – even if only for those moments that we’d be following what was happening. Hands down, the theme song of the 2021 US Open will be, ‘And then I saw her face, now Emma Believer!’ And congratulations to Daniil for securing his first Slam title.