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Qualifier to champion: Britain’s Raducanu, 18, wins US Open

(Emma Raducanu, of Britain, lies on the court after defeating Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, during the women’s singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in New York. AP Photo: Frank Franklin II)

By HOWARD FENDRICH, NEW YORK (AP):- British teenager Emma Raducanu arrived in New York last month with a ranking of 150th, just one Grand Slam appearance to her name and a flight booked to head out of town after the U.S. Open’s preliminary rounds in case she failed to win her way into the main tournament.

And there she was in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday, cradling the silver trophy to complete an unlikely — indeed, unprecedented — and surprisingly dominant journey from qualifier to major champion by beating Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez 6-4, 6-3 in the final.

“The future of women’s tennis, and just the depth of the game right now, is so great,” said the 18-year-old Raducanu, who will rise into the WTA’s top 25 on Monday. “I think every single player here in the women’s draw definitely has a shot of winning any tournament.”

The first female qualifier ever to reach a Grand Slam final, let alone win one, proved that emphatically. She captured 10 matches in a row at Flushing Meadows — three in qualifying, seven in the main draw — and is the first woman to win the U.S. Open title without dropping a set since Serena Williams in 2014.

Consider: Not only was this Raducanu’s first tour-level title, it was her fourth tour-level event.

This was the first major final between two teens since Williams, 17, beat Martina Hingis, 18, at the 1999 U.S. Open and the first between two unseeded women in the professional era, which began in 1968.

“I hope to be back here in the finals and this time with a trophy — the right one,” Fernandez said as tears welled in her eyes.

Raducanu broke to go up 4-2 in the second set, held for 5-2 and twice was a point from winning the title in the next game. But under pressure from Fernandez, she let both of those opportunities slip away by putting groundstrokes into the net.

“That’s just the competitor that she is,” Raducanu said about Fernandez, whom she last faced in the second round of the Wimbledon juniors event three years ago.

Slightly different stakes back then.

At 5-3, while serving for the match, Raducanu slid on the court chasing a ball to her backhand side, bloodying her left knee. A trainer came out to put a white bandage on the cut and, during a delay of more than four minutes right before a break point, Fernandez — a 19-year-old left-hander from Canada ranked 73rd — spoke to chair umpire Marijana Veljovic.

“I honestly did not know what was happening with Emma. I didn’t know how serious her fall was, so that’s why I went to see the official and ask her about it,” Fernandez said. “It was just too bad that it happened in that specific moment with me with the momentum. But it’s sports, it’s tennis. Just got to move on.”

After action returned, Raducanu saved a pair of break points, then converted on her third chance to close it out with a 108 mph ace, making her the youngest female Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova was 17 at Wimbledon in 2004.

Raducanu dropped her racket, landed on her back and covered her face with both hands.

“I think just staying in the moment, focusing on what I had to do, my process and the mindset just really helps in those tough times,” she said.

Raducanu, who was born in Toronto and moved to England with her family at age 2, is the first British woman to win a Grand Slam trophy since Virginia Wade at Wimbledon in 1977. Queen Elizabeth II sent a congratulatory note, hailing the victory as a “remarkable achievement at such a young age.”

Fernandez, whose birthday was Monday, was asked during a pre-match interview in the hallway that leads from the locker room to the court entrance what she expected Saturday’s greatest challenge to be.

“Honestly,” she responded, “I don’t know.”

Fair. Neither she nor Raducanu could have truly known.

Both walked out to loud ovations — Fernandez’s was slightly more raucous — and wearing their equipment bags with both straps over their shoulders, the way someone might do with a backpack for high school (Raducanu recently completed her exams) or college.

Both displayed the poise and shot-making of veterans at the U.S. Open. The talent and affinity for the big stage both possess is unmistakable.

The final was filled with entertaining and lengthy points.

One of the significant differences: Fernandez put only 58% of her first serves in play and finished with five double-faults, helping Raducanu accumulate 18 break points.

“I, unfortunately, made one too many mistakes in key moments,” Fernandez said, “and she took advantage of it.”

The crowd was so quiet right before and during points that one could hear the right-handed Raducanu’s slap of a leg while waiting to receive serves or her whisper of an exhale while swinging her racket.

And folks — thrilled to be back on-site after last year’s pandemic ban of all spectators — got so loud after points, celebrating along with the left-handed Fernandez’s physical trainer, who would leap out of his front-row seat when things went his player’s way.

Fernandez’s group — including two sisters and Mom but not Dad, who stayed home in Florida, where they moved after her early success in the juniors several years ago — was in the guest box assigned to the higher-ranked player. That’s a status Fernandez was unaccustomed to as she beat four seeded women in a row, each in three sets: defending champion Naomi Osaka and 2016 champ Angelique Kerber, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 5 Elina Svitolina.

That meant Fernandez came in having spent more than 12 1/2 hours on court through her six matches; Raducanu’s main-draw total was about 7 1/2 hours.

That seemed to be a factor, particularly over the second half of the 1-hour, 51-minute final.

From 4-all in the opening set, Raducanu took eight of the last 11 games. When she broke to take that set with a well-paced, well-placed forehand winner down the line, she stared at her entourage, then whipped her arms — and the fans reacted.

Raducanu’s only previous Grand Slam tournament came at Wimbledon, where she stopped playing during the fourth round because of trouble breathing. That was July, when Raducanu was ranked outside the top 300 and an unknown.

How quickly all of that has changed.

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