Ahead of the US Open Women’s Singles Final, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, considers the chances of Emma Raducanu becoming only the third British winner of a US Open Singles title.
In total, only six Britons have ever won a US Singles title since the US Championships was first staged at the end of the 19th century (the first men’s event was in 1881 and the first women’s event in 1887) and only two in the Open Era: Virginia Wade, at the first ever US Open in 1968: and Andy Murray 44 years later in 2012. Now Emma Raducanu stands on the brink of completing a truly historic hat-trick of British winners of a US Open Singles title. But can she do it? And what, if anything, can she learn from the two compatriots who won in New York before her?
Virginia Wade 1968 (defeated Billie Jean King 6-4 6-2)
Such was the unforgettable nature of Virginia Wade’s final Major win at Wimbledon in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (marking 25 years on the throne), that it is easy to forget that she won three Majors in total. Her first Major win came at the very first US Open in 1968, when she shocked home favorite and defending champion Billie Jean King in straight sets.
In 1968, Wade was nothing like the rank outsider that Emma Raducanu was at the start of the 2021 tournament. In fact, she was seeded sixth, but was still not considered among the favorites for the title. Indeed, she was not even the most highly ranked Briton, as Ann Jones, who had already won two French titles and lost in the 1967 Final against King, was seeded second.
Nevertheless, it was Wade, not Jones, who stunned New York and the tennis world by winning the title. She defeated three American women in the first three rounds, including the dogged Rosie Casals in the third round (6-4, 7-5), before beating Judy Tegart of Australia in the quarterfinal (6-3, 6-2). Thus, the stage was set for an all-British semi-final between Wade and Jones, with Jones the favorite. However, Wade upset the odds by winning in straight sets, including a one-sided second set (7-5, 6-1).
Even so, Wade was still considered a long shot against King in the Final, as the American had already won two Wimbledon titles (in 1966 and 1967) to go alongside her 1967 US triumph. But the American, who was perhaps a little tired after winning a tough three-set semi-final against Brazil’s Maria Bueno (3-6, 6-4, 6-2), did not play at her best and was ultimately overwhelmed by the coltish young Briton.
Andy Murray 2012 (defeated Novak Djokovic 7–6(10) 7–5 2–6 3–6 6–2)
Virginia Wade won her first Major Singles title in her first Major final, but for Andy Murray the road to Grand Slam glory was a lot longer and a lot harder. When Murray faced Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, in New York in 2012, he was competing in his fifth Major final and had lost all of the previous four: the 2008 US Open Final, 2010 Australian Open final, and 2012 Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, and the 2011 Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic. But fifth time out, Murray was not to be denied, even if it took him five hard-fought sets to do it.
Between losing his fourth Major Final at Wimbledon just a few months earlier, when Roger Federer recovered from the loss of the first set to eventually win in four sets (4–6, 7–5, 6–3, 6–4), and winning in New York, Murray had achieved a career breakthrough by winning what was almost a quasi-Major – the 2012 Olympic Singles title, which was staged at Wimbledon as part of the London Olympics. For once roared on by an entirely partisan crowd, which had not been the case in the actual Wimbledon Final just a few weeks earlier, Murray virtually thrashed Federer in straight sets (6–2, 6–1, 6–4), and the experience seemed to liberate him in time for his next performance at a Major, at the US Open just a few weeks later.
Murray benefited from a relatively benign draw in New York, defeating Marin Čilić and Tomáš Berdych in the quarterfinal and semi-final respectively, to reach the final, but his opponent in that final could not have been more daunting. It was Novak Djokovic, in the first phase of what would eventually become a decade-long domination (or perhaps ‘Djomination’) of men’s tennis that might yet reach its conclusion in New York this weekend if he wins a fourth US Open title, a record-breaking 21st Major in total and the first calendar Grand Slam in the men’s game since 1969.
Nevertheless, in 2012 Murray eventually got the better of Djokovic. And “eventually” is the key word. He narrowly won the first two sets, before Djokovic typically came roaring back to level the match at two sets all. At that point, fans of British men’s tennis, most of whom had never seen a British man win a Major in their lifetime (the last such triumph had come in 1936, when Fred Perry won his final Major in New York at the end of his own three-season domination of men’s tennis), absolutely feared the worst. But emboldened by his Olympic triumph, and visibly and volubly supported by his fellow Great Scots Sean Connery and Alex Ferguson, Murray somehow held his nerve to win the fifth and final set 6-2.
And Emma Raducanu in 2021?
If Emma Raducanu can win the US Open Women’s Singles title this weekend, it would not only complete a hat-trick of British Singles triumphs in NYC in the Open Era. Even more impressively, it would be arguably the most astonishing Singles Major win in the entire Open Era, if not in the entire history of tennis. That is because she would be the first qualifier to win a Major in either the women’s or the men’s game, and so would outstrip even the historic achievements of Tracy Austin (who became US Open champion in 1979) or Boris Becker (who won Wimbledon in 1985). At 16 and 17 respectively, they may have been younger than the 18-year-old Raducanu, but they were also both far more highly ranked and rated than the young Briton was at the start of the 2021 US Open. In addition, they were certainly not playing in only their second Major, as Raducanu currently is.
However, there are reasons for British tennis fans and indeed Raducanu fans of all nations to be fearful. First of all, her opponent in the US Open final, Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, has created a little–actually, a lot of–history herself this week, by putting together a second week of wins to reach the final that is arguably the most impressive in tennis history (either men’s or women’s). She has defeated, in succession: Naomi Osaka, the defending champion; Angelique Kerber, a former US Open champion; Elina Svitolina, the world No.5; and Aryna Sabalenka, the world No.2. In the Open Era, perhaps only Juan Martín del Potro’s 2009 US Open feat of defeating Rafael Nadal in the semi-final and Roger Federer in the final, when both the Spaniard and the Swiss were probably at their absolute peak, comes anywhere close. And in 2009 del Potro was a much more seasoned campaigner than Fernandez is in 2021. As Jim Courier put it this week, Fernandez has defeated a veritable “Murderers’ Row” (a term first used to describe the legendary 1920s New York Yankees’ batting line-up in baseball) to get to the final.
In addition, by beating so many champions and highly ranked players in succession, often in hard-fought three-set matches, Fernandez has become battle-hardened in a way that Raducanu simply has not. By contrast, the young Briton has not lost even a single set in any of the nine matches she has played so far (including three in qualifying), which is both a testament to the supreme quality she has shown in New York and to the slightly supine performances of some of her opponents, notably Shelby Rogers, who lost 11 games in succession to Raducanu less than 48 hours after knocking out the World No.1, Ash Barty. Consequently, if Fernandez should win the first set in the final, Raducanu will be in completely uncharted territory.
However, if there is a case to be made for Raducanu triumphing this weekend, then it can perhaps be based on the historic achievements of her fellow Britons, Virginia Wade and Andy Murray, at the US Open. Unlike both Wade and Murray, Raducanu will not be facing a dominant World No.1 and defending champion, as Wade and Murray did against Billie Jean King and Novak Djokovic respectively. Instead, she is facing someone who, like herself, is a teenager who was largely unknown and unproven before the tournament. And if Wade and Murray could beat King and Djokovic in their Grand Slam grapples in the Apple, Raducanu can certainly defeat Fernandez.
Main Photo from Getty.