US Open 2021: How Emma Raducanu handcuffed Maria Sakkari to leave her bereft and befuddled

Emma Raducanu celebrates - AP

Emma Raducanu celebrates – AP

How on earth? It’s just not possible for an 18-year-old qualifier to reach a major final. We know that because it has never been done before. But Emma Raducanu never even blinked as she ousted Maria Sakkari without fuss or apparent effort.

We have used up all our superlatives on this dream run already, but suffice to say that this was Raducanu’s best performance to date. She began with her trademark, the long sequence of successive games won – five in this case – before Sakkari even managed to put her own name on the scoreboard.

And then, when it came to closing time, she used Tim Henman at courtside to give her a moment of reassurance. “Tim is honestly such a big inspiration,” said Raducanu of Henman, with whom she made eye contact before sending down her final serve. “He has been helping me and telling me to treat it one point at a time.”

Raducanu’s 6-1, 6-4 triumph, coming on the back of 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez’s victory in the first match of the evening, means that the two finalists have a combined age of 37 between them. But this was such a different match to the one that preceded it, with a completely different atmosphere.

For ups and downs, unexpected diversions and thrilling turnarounds, the first match had it all, as Fernandez – the slightly-built Canadian left-hander – came back from 4-1 in the first set to score a 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 win over the strong tournament favourite Aryna Sabalenka.

Raducanu, by contrast, was businesslike from the moment she stepped out there. She handcuffed Sakkari with the depth and consistency of her groundstrokes. And then, when the opportunity was there, she would step in and fire a backhand up the line as if it was as easy as riding a bicycle.

The psychological battle was heavily concentrated on the opening quarter of an hour. Sakkari held seven break points over the course of Raducanu’s first two service games. That’s where most young players would buckle. Her great gift, though, is to bend and never break.

She absorbed the stress of the moment, held both times, and thus inflicted an enormous blow on Sakkari’s fragile self-belief. This is a woman who had held match point to reach the French Open final, just three months ago, only to see victory ripped from her grasp. Those wounds opened again last night.

Raducanu’s tactics were masterful. She adjusted her serving position so that she was able to find a wider angle out to Sakkari’s forehand, the weaker side. She used the slice at opportune moments, often drawing an error with the change of pace. And when she came forward to the net, her volleys had the authority of a seasoned serve-volleyer.

After the match, the former US Open finalist Greg Rusedski suggested that “What Andrew Richardson did with the tactics was spot on and brilliant.” Yet we should note that Raducanu likes to do her own scouting and work out her own gameplans.

Raducanu walks over to meet her adoring fans - APRaducanu walks over to meet her adoring fans - AP

Raducanu walks over to meet her adoring fans – AP

This is the student in her, the same student that scored an A-star and an A in her mathematics and economics A-Levels this summer. How reassuring it is, both on the court and in the examination room, to arrive knowing that you are completely prepared.

Sakkari’s reaction afterwards was telling. “I wasn’t myself on court,” she said. “But we were all absent from the court these days playing against her. I saw Belinda [Bencic, Raducanu’s quarter-final victim] yesterday. I don’t want to speak for her, but I think she would agree with me that we did not bring our best performance.”

This is what Raducanu has done to people all fortnight. She has broken them down, left them bereft and befuddled. Partly it is the effect of her very youth, which has an indomitable quality. As Sakkari said “They [Raducanu and Fernandez] play fearless. They have nothing to lose playing against us.”

And then there is the precise way that Raducanu’s game is calibrated. She applies pressure in a very exact manner. There are just enough flourishes to make her opponents feel uncomfortable, because they know she can pull out a winner when she needs one.

But on many points she sits in, working the percentages and challenging her opponents to take the risk. When they do spin the roulette wheel, it keeps coming up red – the colour Raducanu has worn throughout the event.

Look at the different manner of Fernandez’s passage to the final: four straight barn-burners, all three sets, against big-name opponents. Whereas Raducanu has yet to drop a set – or face so much as a tie-break – in nine outings in New York. The most games anyone has taken off her in a set was five by the unheralded Georgian Mariam Bolkvadze in the second round of qualifying.

Raducanu puts her hands on her head at the moment of victory - SHUTTERSTOCKRaducanu puts her hands on her head at the moment of victory - SHUTTERSTOCK

Raducanu puts her hands on her head at the moment of victory – SHUTTERSTOCK

Speaking to on-court interviewer Renee Stubbs, Raducanu finished the evening with an answer as perfect as any of her groundstrokes.

Asked how she would deal with the expectation of the final, she replied “Is there any expectation? I am a qualifier so technically on paper there is no pressure on me.”

It was another demonstration of her extraordinary poise and self-possession. This is a woman whose biggest tournament victory came in a lowly $25,000 event in Pune, India, two years ago. And now she will be playing for a first prize of $2.5m, exactly a hundred times as much.

In the words of Martina Navratilova, commentating on Amazon Prime: “She must have been here before. It was just in a previous life.”

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