No Roger Federer, no Rafael Nadal, no Serena Williams, but as tennis majors go the 2021 US Open has been as good as it gets. The women’s draw was strewn with upsets and featured two thrilling runs to the final by hitherto little-known players. Before the tournament began nobody could have imagined seeing Leylah Fernandez, who turned 19 during the event, and Emma Raducanu, who at 18 had to come through the qualifiers to participate in the main draw, facing off for the championship. But they both crossed every hurdle placed in front of them with a sense of panache that belied their age and experience.
Raducanu’s run in particular had a sense of the unreal about it. Tennis has been no stranger to teenage breakout stars. Martina Hingis, Williams, Nadal, Michael Chang, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander all won majors in their teens. But they were still established names when they first won. For instance, Chang had already competed in a slew of ATP events and won his first singles title even before he triumphed at the French Open in 1989 at the age of 17. Similarly, when Hingis won the Australian Open as a 16-year-old, she was ranked fourth in the world. Raducanu’s run, though, is unprecedented.
Armed with a wildcard, she made the fourth round at Wimbledon. But neither before nor since has she won a match on the WTA Tour. Earlier this year, when most of her present peers were getting ready to play in the Australian Open, Raducanu was inquiring about her A-levels on Twitter.
A summer later and here she is at the summit of women’s tennis. Her run of victories is so extraordinary that she became the first persona—male or female—to make the final of a major having come through qualifying. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that she didn’t lose a single set of tennis in the tournament; indeed, in the main draw, no opponent managed to secure more than four games in a set against her.
There is in Raducanu’s game (and this is true, albeit to a lesser extent in Fernandez’s style) evidence of an evolution in the sport: that to be a top player now one has to be adept at many things, one ought to be able to cover the court with pace and agility, one has to be capable of defending every corner of the court, and, that more than anything else, one has to see the return-of-serve as a weapon. Raducanu, as she showed throughout the tournament here, aims to send every return of hers as close as possible to the server’s baseline—here it isn’t so much the use of angles as the pace on the ball that’s critical. When a return is sent back centrally, but deep, the server is invariably going to find it difficult to create an angle of her own, and the likelihood of the next ball being short is higher. And when that happens Raducanu attacks. The analyst Matthew Willis has an excellent study of this phenomenon (you can find it in the link below). When the tactic is executed well, as Radicanu so often did this tournament, it makes for terrific viewing.
On the men’s draw there seemed to be in many people’s minds an inevitability about Novak Djokovic completing The Grand Slam. But going unbeaten across majors is amongst the hardest things to do in sport. No man has managed to achieve this in the Open Era. But Djokovic is the only person who has held every major simultaneously. So, if anyone could achieve the calendar-slam it was him. But as it turned out, after a gruelling semi-final against Alexander Zverev—where, in the deciding fifth set, he had had played some of the most precise tennis that one can hope to see—Djokovic had scarcely little left in the tank. And when you’re tired and weary the last player that you want to face is Daniil Medvedev.
The Russian has a game built for America’s hard courts. His run to the US Open final in 2019 was superb. He lost there to Nadal in five sets despite being the better player for much of the match. This time around he refused to make the same errors. He cruised through most of his service games but made Djokovic work hard on every one of his. This was like watching Djokovic play himself at his best—there simply weren’t any easy points available. Medvedev was ready to play for as long as he needed to, twenty, thirty, forty shot rallies, whatever it was going to take, he was ready to grind it out.
On a different day, if Djokovic had been in better physical shape, this might well have turned into an epic. But Medvedev needed only three sets on this occasion. That he made the best player on the planet look ordinary needs celebrating. Anyone who’s seen Medvedev’s rise over the last three years, who’s seen the quality of his tennis this summer, would have known that he began the match—as he did the tournament—as a potential favourite. But the nature of the win itself, that he was able to dismantle Djokovic’s game with such ease, was still a surprise.
Where will Djokovic go from here? His career has been moulded by his rivalries, chiefly with Nadal and Federer, and to a lesser extent with Murray and Wawrinka. This next phase, it might be safe to imagine, could well be marked by a new rivalry. As fans of the sport, we can take joy in the fact that it’s just the sort of challenge that Djokovic usually thrives on.