Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is a professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
At a US Open that didn’t include the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams, this women’s final was both the one that we wanted, and the one that we didn’t dare hope for.
While Novak Djokovic’s victory in five sets Friday night put him just one win away from securing his 21st major title and becoming the first male player to achieve a calendar grand slam since Rod Laver in 1969, two unseeded teenagers who aren’t old enough to go out in New York City for a celebratory drink have dominated the headlines as they prepared for the match of their young lives Saturday.
And thank goodness Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez met in a final before a crowd that included luminaries like Tim Henman, Andy Roddick, Gayle King, Savannah Guthrie and Steve Nash. Thank goodness theirs wasn’t a first round match that no one saw. Thank goodness this took place on the mainstage of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Thank goodness for Raducanu, just 18 years old, that the third championship point was the charm.
Yet while we revel in the excitement of these new faces, these so-called teen dreams, the specter of the history of this sport and young women lurks in the shadows, exemplified by the ghosts of everyone from former phenom Jennifer Capriati, who struggled with injuries, burnout and inner demons, to the venerable Naomi Osaka, who seems to have declared an indefinite leave after a season of profound openness and honesty about the mental battles it involves.
With her win in Flushing Meadows, Raducanu is the 14th first-time Grand Slam singles champ since 2015, demonstrating a lack of staying power for many who hold a coveted trophy high overhead. And for her, this isn’t just a first slam – it’s the first of any title on the WTA Tour, a true Cinderella story.
When Raducanu and Fernandez, who turned 19 just this past week, squared off for the women’s title, a whole bunch of so-called firsts followed them onto the court: the first major final, men’s or women’s, starring unseeded players since the beginning of the Open Era in 1968; Raducanu is the first qualifier to get to a Grand Slam final in the Open Era; and it is the first all-teen Grand Slam final since 1999, when 17-year-old Serena Williams upset Martina Hingis, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), for her first Grand Slam title in only her second year on the pro circuit.
Point of fact: neither of these young women saw that match because they hadn’t been born.
They brought with them a newly minted cheering section from around the globe. The duo, both born in Canada, defy easy categorization in a sport where both nationality and ethnicity have often proved contentious. Fernandez, who speaks English, French and Spanish, is coached by her father, Jorge, a former professional soccer player from Ecuador. Her mother, born in Canada to Filipino parents, moved to California for work in order to better financially support the family. Raducanu, whose father is Romanian and mother is Chinese, moved to London when she was two.
Citizens of the world, their multicultural heritage is increasingly a hallmark of the sport, pushing new ideas of identity on the heels of the space that Osaka has made for transnational athletes in tennis. Osaka, born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian-American father, has grown up in the United States while continuing to play for Japan.
Chosen for the honor of lighting the cauldron at Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, Osaka has also outwardly embraced the politics of Black Lives Matter, dancing over and around the lines of ethnic and national identity. Just as reporters failed to find language to describe Tiger Woods when he marched across the storied greens of Augusta National in 1997 to take his first Masters title, Osaka defies classification, occupying a complicated, intersectional, transnational space in sports that is both rare and needed.
Both Fernandez and Raducanu, as well as their global fanbase, occupy that space. Perhaps tennis is finally having its Tiger Woods moment.
Anyone who claims to have predicted that Raducanu would take the trophy was lucky, at best, with so little known about how she or Fernandez would do on a big stage.
The left-handed Fernandez, ranked 73rd in the world, had been the scrappy slayer of giants, going deep into three-set matches with the likes of Osaka, Angelique Kerber and Aryna Sabalenka with a killer serve and return winners, adjusting her game when needed with a range that included stunning drop shots and bold baseline strokes. Raducanu, ranked 150th, took less time to get there with lesser competition, but as the first qualifier to ever win a major, she had three matches to play just to enter the big show. And she never dropped a set: 20 straight sets, including in the matches she had to play to get in, to become the first British women to win a major title since Virginia Wade in 1977 at Wimbledon, and the youngest grand slam winner since Maria Sharapova in 2004.
The two of them took risks that created both egregious mis-hits and stunning winners, moving on the court with fiery speed, rallying from the baseline, throwing break points around that made the service seem almost obsolete, taking lobs out of the air, and throwing in a few more drop shots just to keep it interesting. It felt at times like there couldn’t be a loser in this match – the very presence of them in the final was a win for the sport, for the fans, for themselves. But, of course, that’s not how sports work, and Fernandez’s tears at the end showed exactly that.
It’s no secret that tennis can eat its young, perhaps especially on the women’s side. But for now, amidst all of the joy, all of the international excitement for these two 21st century teens, let’s take a page out of the playbook they just wrote as athletes who embraced, rather than backed away from, their moment. They ran with it, and they let us have the privilege of watching.