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 US Open’s preliminary rounds in case she failed to win her way into the main tournament.
On Saturday she was in Arthur Ashe Stadium, holding a 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,” Raducanu said.
“I think every single player here in the women’s draw definitely has a shot of winning any tournament.”
The 18-year-old Raducanu won 10 matches in a row at Flushing Meadows – three in qualifying, seven in the main draw – and is the first woman to win the US Open title without dropping a set since Serena Williams in 2014.
This was the first major final between two teens since Williams, 17, beat Martina Hingis, 18, at the 1999 US 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. With the right trophy,” Fernandez said as tears welled in her eyes during the trophy presentation.
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 Wimbledon juniors event three years ago.
Then at 5-3, while Raducanu was serving for the match, she 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, Fernandez – a 19-year-old left-hander from Canada ranked 73rd – spoke to chair umpire Marijana Veljovic.
When they resumed, Raducanu saved a pair of break points, then converted on her third chance to close it with an ace.
Raducanu is the first British woman to win a grand slam trophy since Virginia Wade at Wimbledon in 1977.
Wade was in the Ashe stands on Saturday, applauding with everyone else.
Raducanu is also the youngest player to claim a women’s major title since Maria Sharapova was 17 at Wimbledon in 2004.
The first grand slam final – men or women – to be contested by two unseeded players was an improbable match-up that no one could have predicted.
But the teenagers played like veterans, displaying the poise and shot-making of seasoned professionals.
Fernandez’s group – including mum, but not dad, who stayed home in Florida, where they moved after 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 in the tournament as she beat four seeded women, each in three sets: Defending champion Naomi Osaka and 2016 champ Angelique Kerber, No.2 Aryna Sabalenka and No.5 Elina Svitolina.
Fernandez came in having spent about five hours on court more than Raducanu in the main draw and that seemed to be a factor in the one hour 51 minute final.
From 4-all in the first set, Raducanu took over, taking eight of the last 11 games.
When she broke to take the opener 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 major tournament came at Wimbledon, where she retired during the fourth round because of trouble breathing.
That was July, when Raducanu was ranked outside the top 300 and an unknown.
On Monday she will be ranked 23rd, with a major trophy and a $2.5 million ($3.5m) winner’s cheque to bank.