Opinion: Teenagers surged. Veterans melted. How US Open semis flipped conventional wisdom on its head

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

NEW YORK — At the highest level of sports, we are conditioned to think of experience as a crucible one must endure on the way to great accomplishments. You can’t skip steps. You have to lose some before you know how to win. Sometimes, you just need to see what it takes up close.

But on a strange, historic and ultimately refreshing women’s semifinal night at the U.S. Open, 18-year old Emma Raducanu and 19-year old Leylah Fernandez threw that all out the window. And conversely, experience might well have been a burden to the more veteran players they beat.

“They’re both young, they play fearless, they have nothing to lose playing against us,” said No. 17 seed Maria Sakkari, who never found her game in a 6-1, 6-4 loss to Raducanu. “I have to give credit to both of the young girls. They take their chances, and they’re out there and fighting for that title.”

How do you end up with a Grand Slam final matching up players who were so far off the radar when the tournament started that the control tower at LaGuardia Airport wouldn’t have spotted them? It took a lot of things going right for them over the last two weeks, including some brilliant tennis and steely nerves.

It also took their opponents melting under the strain of being so close to a major title, playing teenage girls who haven’t really been through the battles — and yes, the disappointment — of knowing what it’s like to lose when there’s this much on the line. 

“This is a nice kind of feeling for them, and I felt it before,” Aryna Sabalenka said after becoming the third top-five player in this tournament to lose to Fernandez, who came into it  ranked 73rd. “The question is when you will start to understand what’s going on and where you are and how you can deal with these expectations at this level and this pressure.”

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Leylah Fernandez celebrates after beating Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals of the 2021 U.S. Open.

Anyone who has played tennis at any level from local rec leagues to Grand Slam finals understands that there always two games going on in any given match: The one that’s happening on the court and the wrestling match in a player’s own mind. 

Both Sabalenka and Sakkari came in after their losses talking about how loose and aggressive the teenagers played while regretting their own inability to swing freely in the split-second reaction that occurs between a player seeing the ball coming at them and then choosing how to hit it.

When there’s hesitation and indecision on one side of the net and complete confidence on the other, the rankings don’t matter much. But is that because Fernandez and Raducanu are young and playing with house money, or are they simply just better at handling all the elements of high-stakes tennis matches? They may have had nothing to lose when the tournament began, but they did walk on the court Thursday night knowing they’re in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

“I think that honestly, being young, there is an element that you do play completely free,” Raducanu said. “I’m sure that when I’m older or have more experience, the same will happen to me and I think the table will turn. But right now I’m just thinking of the game plan how to execute and that’s what has landed me in this situation. It hasn’t been about who’s expected to win this match or that one, I’m just taking care of the day and that’s what I’m doing quite well at the moment.”

Emma Raducanu celebrates after match point against Maria Sakkari in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

There’s a lot to be said for someone like Fernandez, who has lost a lot of first- and second-round matches on the WTA Tour this year, producing a completely different level of tennis under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, for stepping up in close matches against a series of true champions and executing better than they did. That’s what great players do. 

At the same time, you can understand where Sakkari’s coming from. This is a player who has had a terrific year on the WTA Tour, a true battler who made her first Grand Slam semifinal earlier this year at the French Open and lost in a heartbreaker to eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova. 

Just a few nights ago, in fact, she hit great shot after great shot with her back against the wall against 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu to tough out a third set win. But against Raducanu? Her game just dissolved into nothing, and there was little she could do to get it back.

That’s not about her tennis. That’s about her mind. 

“I think I fought until the last ball, but it’s tough to get yourself back in the match when nothing is going right and everything is going very good for the opponent,” Sakkari said. “My serve wasn’t there, my groundstrokes I was missing a lot, which is not very natural for me. I think I didn’t handle the pressure of playing another semifinal once again. It happens, it's human emotions.”

But now, perhaps much sooner than they expected, both Fernandez and Raducanu will have something to lose — and, of course, something to gain — in Saturday’s final. The U.S. Open trophy will be courtside awaiting the winner, the opportunity of a lifetime within their grasp when they’re still just at the beginning.

Both are mature enough to understand what that means. 

"If you have opportunities, go for it and don’t overthink,” Sabalenka said. “It’s easy to say, but when you’re on the court, you start thinking a lot.”

It’s likely these two breathtaking teenagers will start to understand that Saturday. Whichever one can avoid the thinking part will likely leave as a U.S. Open champion.