Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 12, 2021

History Denied, History Made, At Arthur Ashe Stadium

For two weeks tennis fans assumed that the historic part of this year’s U.S. Open would come on its final day, when Novak Djokovic would become the first male player in more than half a century to complete the calendar year Grand Slam, and by so doing break a three-way tie with rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most career victories in the men’s tennis majors by winning his twenty-first.  Injuries and age have put the careers of his two longtime antagonists into eclipse, and the results at this year’s previous Grand Slams was seen as proof no one in the next generation of male stars was ready to dethrone the world number one.

But there is a reason why no player has won in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York in the same year since Rod Laver turned the trick in 1969.  It is, quite simply, an extraordinarily difficult task.  One bad day, an inspired opponent, a weakness on a particular surface, an untimely injury during the months over which the four tennis majors are spread out on the sport’s annual calendar – any one of these factors can derail a march to the record books.  And for as much as Djokovic had dominated the men’s game through the first three majors, there were warning signs at Flushing Meadow, at least to those not blinded by the beckoning beacon of history.

Only once in the six matches that took the top seed from the opening round through the semifinals did Djokovic win in straight sets.  That included a five-set semifinal against 4th seed Alexander Zverev, a match which Djokovic appeared to have in hand at two sets to one, before a poor service game at 1-1 in the fourth led to a break that allowed Zverev back in the match.

In contrast, 2nd seed Daniil Medvedev sailed through his half of the draw, dropping just a single set on his way to Sunday’s showdown for the championship on Arthur Ashe Stadium’s court.  Still, when Medvedev broke Djokovic in the opening game of the match and then cruised to a 6-4 first set win without facing a single break point on his own serve, fans who had bought into the media hype that dropping a set ensures that Djokovic will raise his game to an even higher level, probably assumed the favorite had his younger competitor right where he wanted him.

Instead, the men’s final turned into the last thing anyone, likely including Medvedev, expected, a straight set rout by the challenger.  Medvedev’s only serious wobble came near the end, perhaps as he realized the magnitude of what he was about to do.  Leading 6-2, 6-2, 5-2 and serving for the title at 40-30, Medvedev double faulted twice and then dumped a backhand into the net to hand the game to Djokovic.  But he still had a service break in hand, and on his next try he held his nerve, and thus his serve, to claim his first major championship.

Even had Djokovic prevailed, the remarkable achievement of a calendar year Grand Slam would have wound up sharing space in the history books.  That became certain on Thursday, when 18-year-old Emma Radacanu and 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez each won her semifinal match, setting up the first all-teenage final in Queens since 1999, and the first women’s singles Grand Slam final in the Open Era featuring two unseeded players.

Ranked 73rd in the world, Fernandez was an unlikely finalist.  But she took down defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round, former world number one Angelique Kerber in the fourth, then the 5th and 2nd seeds on the women’s side in the quarter- and semifinals.  Yet across the net from her for Saturday’s women’s final was a player who made Fernandez look like a Grand Slam veteran.  Radacanu arrived in Queens ranked 150th and was that high largely on the strength of an improbable run to the fourth round at Wimbledon.  She was a wild card entrant into that Grand Slam, having just played her first WTA tournament one month earlier.  Radacanu came to New York with no guarantee of playing in the main tournament, having to first make her way through qualifying. 

The rest of the story is history of the best kind.  As Fernandez made her unlikely journey through one side of the draw, dramatically winning three-set matches, Radacanu was steamrolling though her side, winning nine consecutive matches, three in qualifying plus the six rounds through the semifinals, without dropping a single set.

Make that ten consecutive straight set victories.  In front of a capacity crowd that seemed equally happy cheering for either contestant, Radacanu won 6-4, 6-3, in a match that could have tipped either way on multiple occasions.  That it went in favor of the Canadian-born Englishwoman only lengthens the list of historic achievements.  The first qualifier to reach a major final, and thus, the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam tournament.  The first British woman to win a major since Virginia Wade in 1977.  The first woman to reach the U.S. Open final in her debut appearance since Venus Williams in 1997.  The lowest ranked player to win a major in a dozen years.  The youngest major champion since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova triumphed at Wimbledon in 2004.

Radacanu and Fernandez made history on the same court where it would be denied one day later, and it will be a long time before either of them again toils in obscurity.  Or so fans should hope.  Tennis is one of our loneliest sports, where for all the talk of teams and coaches and game plans, the player ultimately stands alone.  It is a sport that has devoured its young, time after time, from Jennifer Capriati to Andrea Jaeger to Frances Tiafoe.  Perhaps this time will be different.  The maturity both showed on the court, and the poise each demonstrated during the awards presentation, bodes well.  But when nothing is expected, being free and easy comes naturally.  For these incredible young women who stormed into the history books of tennis over two weeks at Flushing Meadow, the hard part starts now.    

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