By Arnie Leshin
Nineteen 69 was an eventful year. Man on the moon, Woodstock, Vietnam, Hurricane Camille, Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, the Manson murders. the Chicago Seven trial, first woman horse racing jockey, the amazin’ Mets, the Super Bowl Jets, among other things.
Then there was a happening that same year at the United States Tennis Open played at Flushing Meadow, just over the ramp from then-Shea Stadium. It was the first time since back in the days of the great Rod Laver that a calendar-year Grand Slam was won.
Now, at the same site, but down the ramp from the now-Citi Field, Novak Djokovic of Serbia is playing as the top-seed to join that elite group, as well as serving up a men’s-record 21st major championship overall.
No doubt he’s in a good mood after coasting his way to the semifinals, but when he’s upset, he lets the media know it.
“Do not ask me anything about history,” he said during his on-court interview, “I know it’s there.” Then he strolled off waving to the crowd.
He’s ageless, confident, humorous, a master of shot-making on hard, clay and grass courts, and as for ageless, he is 37 and twice the age of the women’s finalist combined, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Great Britain and 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez of Canada.
Without a doubt, Djokovic was expected to around for the event’s final weekend, but Raducanu and Fernandez? Don’t think so. Currently, Raducanu is ranked 150th, Fernandez 73rd. They’re both unseeded, both are getting loud backings from the big crowds, and remarkably, there they are as Grand Slam finalists.
Both are soaring-hot though in emerging to Saturday’s championship at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It will be the first women’s championship between two teenagers since the 1999 U.S. Open when Serena Williams, 17, defeated 18-year-old Martina Hingis.
As players, the two modern-day teen phenoms are similar. They possess enviable quickness and anticipation. They take balls close to the ground and redirect them with ease. They love the big moment, and don’t care how much better-known or more successful opponents are.
They both took wildly different paths to the finals.
Raducanu became the first qualifier to reach a Grand Slam final in the professional era by overwhelming 17th-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece, 6-1, 6-4. Appearing in only her second major tournament, she has won all 18 sets she has played during three matches in qualifying rounds and six in the main draw.
“The time here in New York,” she said in the on-court interview with former star player Pam Shriver, “has gone so fast. I’ve just been taking care of each day, and before you know it, three weeks later, I’m in the final and I can’t believe it.”
Well, she sure earned it. Against Sakkari, the French Open semifinalist, she made just 17 unforced errors to Sakkari’s 33 and now is the youngest since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at age 17 in 2004.
Fernandez isn’t much older. Her birthday was Monday and she made it through a semifinal filled with momentum swings to edge 2nd-seeded Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4.
At the outset, Sabalenka appeared well in command, claiming 12 of the first 14 points for a 3-0 lead in set one. Only six minutes had elapsed and most spectators hadn’t reached their seats yet.
Not long after, the bulk of the 20,000-plus in their seats tried to rally Fernandez with chants of “Lets go Leylah!, lets go.”, accompanied by rhythmic clapping.
“I’m glad that what I’m doing the court,” said Fernandez, “the fans are loving it, and I’m loving it, too. We’ll say it’s magical.”
And Fernandez, the left-hander, was not feeling what Sabalenka said was “Is what we call pressure.”
No matter what, seemingly, Fernandez didn’t fell it. She didn’t waver, she won the second set after dropping the first in a tie-breaker. Her poise, much like Raducanu’s, is as limitless as the potential of the two.
While Raducanu, the righty, was easing through each round no matter who she was playing, Fernandez turned in four-straight three-set victories over a seeded opponent. First came No. 3 Naomi Osaka, the 2018 and 2020 U.S. Open champion, then came No. 16 Angelique Kerber, the 2006 winner, and followed by No. 5 Elina Svitolina and Sabalenka.
They are both very much citizens of the world.
Raducanu was born in Toronto to a Chinese mother and Romanian father, with the family moving to England when Emma was born.
Fernandez was born in Montreal to a Filipino Canadian mother and Ecuadorian father. The family relocated to Florida after Leyla had success as a junior at age 12. Now she is making her seventh Grand Slam appearance.
The two will meet for the first time in a tour-level match. Their most recent encounter came in the Wimbledon junior tournament’s second round in 2018. Raducanu won that one. A little more then three years later, they’ll play again on a grander stage, and with much, much more at stake.
Of course, Djokovic has played much, much longer on a lot more big stages as he now sets his latest goal for more Grand Slam history. If he wins his Saturday semis, he plays in the Sunday finals. Thus far, he has won all 26 Grand Slams this season, and is favored to add to it.