Teen Insurrection Takes Over Tennis

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

New York

The US Open’s lead story, Novak Djokovic’s quest for the Grand Slam, draws us in. The sublime athlete is seeking to do what previous icons – from Borg, Connors and McEnroe to Roger, Rafa and Serena – failed to do. The mountain man from Serbia is climbing a steep slope to gain the Grand Slam, and now is two matches from the summit.

We are spellbound.

Yet somehow, the emergence of two girls – a couple of innocents who’ve stolen our hearts – ignites our imagination. It’s because they are both just so enchanting, right? Or is it because their dazzling, out-of-nowhere runs to the US Open final remind us of the constancy and power of change? Is it that we so delight in the unexpected that we adore underdogs? Or is it that the fearlessness of youth somehow reinvigorates even the most jaded among us?

The pop-up teen glory of 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez and 18-year-old Emma Raducanu brings to mind many questions and thoughts.

  1. DIVERSITY: Clearly the power of diversity is transforming tennis. For the fourth straight year, the US Open will have a champion of mixed heritage. Naomi Osaka, the 2018 and 2020 winner, is of Japanese and Haitian heritage. The parents of the 2019 winner, Bianca Andreescu, emigrated from Romania to Canada. Leylah Fernandez’s mother is Filipino-Canadian and her dad is Ecuadorian. The father of the Canadian-born Brit, Emma Raducanu, is Romanian, and her mom is Chinese. Emma noted, “[My] mom definitely instilled from a young age hard work, discipline. For me, when I was younger, I would take a lot of inspiration from Li Na…She was such a fierce competitor…Her inner strength and belief stood out for me. I remember watching her play [Francesca] Schiavone in the French Open final. That was definitely a long, tough match. But the amount of mental strength and resilience she showed still sticks in my head today.”  When Jorge Fernandez, Leylah’s dad, was asked what it meant to him to represent Canada, he replied, “Oh, my God. It means everything. There’s a lot of talk in the news about immigrant people. And I understand how we need to protect and we only have so many resources. I understand all that, and I don’t want to get political…What I’m telling you is that we’re an immigrant family. And we had nothing. Canada opened up its doors. If they wouldn’t have done what they did, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had. And I wouldn’t have been able to give them to my daughter. And that’s it. So, it means a lot.”
  1. REJECTION: Some German geniuses rejected 12-year-old Boris Becker. Five years later he won Wimbledon. American authorities didn’t step up for young Naomi Osaka, so she decided to play for Japan. When Fernandez was nine, she was kicked out of Quebec’s developmental program and she recalled that at school, “One teacher…told me to ‘Stop playing tennis. You will never make it, just focus on school.’ You know what? I’m just glad that she told me that, because every day I have that phrase in my head saying…I’m going to push through, and prove to her everything that I’ve dreamed of I’m going to achieve.”
  1. TOUGH TIMES: Osaka has often talked about how when her family moved from Japan to New York, her mother would have to leave the house before dawn for menial jobs. Osaka’s family fortunes were in some measure on her shoulders, and she has shared her wealth with her parents. Last night, Leylah poignantly spoke about how her mom had to leave Canada for California to take a job to help sustain their family. She said, “Those few years were definitely hard for me because I needed a mom, I needed someone to be there for me through the age of 10 to 13. I barely saw her…Every time I saw her, it was like seeing a stranger.”
  1. OH, CANADA: Our northern neighbor is cold, its winters linger long, its population is small. Yet it has become an unlikely tennis factory. It probably started with Milos Raonic and was sustained by an adept federation. And now Montreal-born Fernandez will face Toronto-born Raducanu in the finals. Canadian male semifinalist Felix Auger-Aliassime commented, “I never thought a day like this would come…a little girl and a little boy from Montreal, both at the same time, in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.” Leylah later revealed to the Arthur Ashe crowd what the secret sauce was that fuels Canada’s success: maple syrup.
  1. THE SUNSHINE STATE: Like Venus and Serena Williams before them, both Naomi Osaka and Leylah Fernandez moved to Florida.
  1. THE KING RICHARD FACTOR: Richard Williams changed everything. Naomi Osaka’s father Leonard modeled his coaching on Richard Williams’ homespun “I don’t know a thing about this game but I am going to make myself a champion” mold. Leylah’s dad, Jorge, was also inspired, and is a self-taught coach. He told Toronto’s Globe and Mail, “I tell Leylah, ‘The art of being a great coach is understanding that you know nothing,’ And when you know nothing, all you do is get hungry to find out. People find it hard to understand the chemistry between me and my kids. When you connect with people, that’s the magic, that’s when you can do all kinds of unbelievable things.’”
  1. SCHOOL MATTERS: Fernandez tells us that she’s just a normal girl and that her father told her: “You can’t take things too seriously, you’ve got to be mature but at the same time just be a kid, let loose, have fun, eat chocolate when you want, just have fun, watch movies, go past your bedtime…My family have definitely kept the joy for me.” But she quickly noted the one thing her fun-loving father was strict about: school. BTW: Just three months ago, Emma Raducanu was taking her high school finals in Britain and has always been a straight-A student.
  1. SISTERHOOD: There are no tennis sisters quite like Venus and Serena. Osaka is also close to her older sister Mari, who retired from the circuit in 2021. Leylah says her younger sister Bianca, who’s trying to climb the pro tennis ladder and is ranked No. 1040, is her best friend. “During the past year with all the difficulties around the world, I was lucky enough to have my family and my sisters…Every time I was feeling down, they were always there to bring me back up. My younger sister makes me laugh all the time…[She’s] the person [responsible for who] I am today, being so happy, so carefree.” As for Raducanu, she’s an only child.
  1. WHAT ARE THEY THINKING? Inevitably, you have to think that the emergence of three incredible teens at the Open (Emma, Leylah and the 18-year-old Spaniard, Carlos Alcaraz, who downed Stefanos Tsitispas en route to the quarterfinals) stirs questions. After all, Venus Williams is four years older than the combined age of the two women’s finalists. Does the youth insurgency get tour elders thinking, or does it impact a cadre of young players like Osaka, Iga Swiatek and Sofia Kenin, who all of a sudden are seen as not so young? After all, in the women’s semifinal, 23-year-old Aryna Sabalenka was seen as the savvy veteran.
  1. WHAT A TURNAROUND: Coming into the Open, Leylah had won just one tournament, Monterrey, Mexico, was ranked No. 73 and was a 200-1 long-shot for the title. Perhaps even more striking was Emma, who got a Wimbledon wildcard despite being ranked No. 338. She’s the first qualifier to ever reach a Slam final.
  1. WHAT’S MORE INCREDIBLE? Fernandez scored considerable early-round wins over former top 20 players Ana Konjuh and Kaia Kanepi. And then she beat 3 of the top 5 seeds: Osaka, Kerber and Svitolina. But was Emma’s run even more astounding? She came through the fiercely competitive qualifying and has marched all the way to the finals without dropping more than four games in a single set in the main draw. Since her opening round, she’s only lost 27 games, and she completely subdued the surging Greek, Maria Sakkari, who’d just beaten Karolina Pliskova and Andreescu.
  1. FICKLE FAME: Serena embraced celebrity with verve. Osaka has been on countless covers and soon will be a co-host of the New York Metropolitan Museum gala. Raducanu has already been in a Vogue fashion spread that pictures her running in sneakers while wearing a pricey designer gown. Leylah’s dad joked about his daughter’s soaring celebrity and suggested, “Keep your trusted people close, and don’t get distracted. Fame’s a traitor…What makes Nadal special, Djokovic special, is their ability to not let fame get them off their work.”
  1. RECORDS ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN: The greatest record that may be achieved at this year’s Open could, of course, be Novak gaining a Grand Slam for the first time in 52 years – since Rod Laver in 1969. But Emma and Leylah have already shattered the record books, and whoever wins will be the youngest to win the US Open since 17-year-old Serena in 1999, and the youngest to win a Slam since Sharapova in 2004, who also won at 17. And of course, Emma, Leylah and Felix have set all kinds of marks relating to Canadian and British history. But our favorite record breaker was Emma, who became the youngest player to reach a major final since…you guessed it: Leylah, just two hours before her.

THE BATTLE OF THE BIG FOURS: ESPN noted four incredible “Big Fours” from four different generations. There were the Aussies Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad and Roy Emerson from the 60s. Then there was Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl from the tennis boom era. The 90s featured Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. And more recently there have, of course, been Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray. And here’s a newsflash. The consensus is that the current Big Four is the best. Darren Cahill said, “It’s like the 100 meter sprint. It’s just faster and faster. The athletes find ways to get bigger and better.”

HERE’S A US OPEN TICKET, MR. PRESIDENT: President Biden, who is coming to New York for 9/11 commemorations, is staying at the players’ hotel, the Intercontinental. The traditional Presidential hotel is the Waldorf-Astoria, but it was sold to China-based Anbang Insurance Group, which was then taken over by China’s government. So now it’s no go. We would have preferred it if the President had booked the Federer Suite at the Carlisle. BTW: it sure would be nice if he dropped by the Open. Former presidents Trump, Clinton, Bush Sr., Carter and Nixon all attended, as did Michelle Obama.

GO FIGURE: There could be even more teen magic at the Open. Fan favorites Coco Gauff and Caty McNally are through to the women’s doubles final…UC Berkeley Volunteer Assistant Coach Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury won men’s doubles over Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares…Robin Montgomery, the product of Maryland’s JTCC, is in the girls’ singles and doubles championships.

NOVAK’S PUSH FOR PERFECTION: “When I dropped the first set [against Berrettini], I just went to a different level and stayed there till the last point…My game has improved definitely during the last couple matches…I know what my strengths are. I stick to them. I’ve worked over the years to perfect my game so that my game can have literally no flaws. Every player has some weaknesses. There’s always something you can improve. I want to have a game that, when I’m playing someone, I can adjust on any surface, I can come up with different styles, I can tactically implement the game that I need for that particular match in order to win.

“I want my opponents to feel that I can get any ball, that I can play comfortably from the back of the court, on the net, serving, returning. Over the years working on perfecting the game has really helped me be very adaptable to anybody’s game and any surface…My work on court, and also fitness-wise, has always been based on equally paying attention to every aspect of my physical abilities, whether it’s strength, flexibility, agility, speed. I always wanted to have everything on a satisfying level so that I could always come up with the element I need in that particular moment…[In the quarters] Matteo deserved to win the first set. There were a lot of emotions…[But] I was just calm at that point. I said, ‘Whatever happened, move on.’ Then I…reached another level of focus and calmness.”

BERRETTINI ON DJOKOVIC: “Novak took energy from that set that he lost. The same thing happened at Wimby…Probably the greatest ever. There is not a lot you can do…He’s doing something that the other two [Rafa and Roger] didn’t do.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Nice article but I would disagree on “King Richard” influence. The author missed what is actually happening. It is a longtime trend of parents coaching even before Richard Williams. We see Jimmy Connors mom and Chris Evert’s dad. We see it with Taylor Dent, Martina Hingis, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Coco Gauff, etc. Tennis has a unique place in sports where parents can hop into the practices and have influence. That is not a likely trend in team sports (although it happens from time to time). The real change is technology. Today’s parents have online resources, youtube, smartphones for videos, and can network with other parents and coaches easily. When Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors were honing their skill, the parent needed tennis skills since the technology was not there. That has less to do with Richard Williams. For coaches who see this all the time, it is not unusual especially with immigrant parents. They have less financial resources so they are more likely to spend the time with their kids than send the kids away to a $900/week sleepover camp. Its fairly common if you are around them.

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