NEW YORK (AP) – Emma Raducanu first met Leylah Fernandez at a tournament for players aged 12 and under, when one of Fernandez’s teachers urged her to give up the dream of tennis.
They shared a love of the game and a connection to Canada, where Fernandez lived and where Raducanu was born, helping to establish a quick relationship. But teens have a lot more in common, perhaps more than they realize.
They will attract an audience for their US Open women’s final on Saturday that extends far beyond the fans who will be at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I just think the game and what we see – these two ladies touch a lot of young girls,” said Jorge Fernandez, Leylah’s father and coach.
People will watch in Asia: Raducanu’s 18-year-old mother is from China and 19-year-old Fernandez is Canadian of Filipino descent.
And in Latin America: Jorge Fernandez is Ecuadorian.
And in Europe: Raducanu’s father is Romanian.
And, of course, in Canada: Fernandez was born in Montreal (although she has been based in Florida for several years); Raducanu was born in Toronto and still holds a passport from that country (her family moved to England when she was 2 years old).
Beyond being great tennis players, these teenagers are citizens of the world.
“This can only be good for tennis and for the WTA as a whole,” said Jorge Fernandez, who answered questions in a Zoom interview on Friday in English, Spanish and French.
Leylah Fernandez was relatively unknown in the Philippines and Ecuador before defeating defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round. She has since garnered a lot of local media attention in both countries, with references to her family’s roots.
Char Abalos was among the fans who woke up early Friday in Manila to watch Fernandez beat No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in a semi-final game that took place Thursday night in New York City.
“She looks very calm but at the same time happy on the pitch,” said Abalos, noting that many tennis players are often quick to frown. “Leylah is so calm, just making sure the crowd takes advantage.”
The player who emerges as a new face of tennis on Saturday will look a lot like last year’s US Open champion. Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, the family moving to New York when she was young.
Tennis also sent this year’s finalists on the move – in Fernandez’s case, his mother moved to California to help support the family while Leylah and her father stayed in Canada to train.
Now they live together in Florida, where Jorge Fernandez stayed for those two weeks while training remotely via phone conversations. He noticed the messages of encouragement which, in recent days, included tweets from Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Leylah Fernandez has not always had such support.
She remembers being in fifth or sixth grade and being encouraged to stop spending so much time on her backhand and pay more attention to the board.
“I remember a teacher, which was actually really funny – back then it wasn’t, but now I’m laughing,” Fernandez said. “She told me to stop playing tennis, ‘You will never make it and just focus on school.'”
Instead, his family dug deeper, with Jorge Fernandez remembering his daughter winning a tournament at age 12 featuring 16-year-old players. This may have set her up for a US Open draw with three players ranked in the top five.
After beating them all in straight sets, including Osaka, his opponent is Raducanu, who wasn’t even in the top 350 a few months ago. She wasn’t even guaranteed to be at the US Open a few weeks ago, having to make her way into the main draw through the qualifying rounds.
She is the first qualified to reach a Grand Slam final. Raducanu beat Fernandez at the Wimbledon junior tournament in 2018, but their skills – and their fans – only grew.
“Obviously since then we’ve both come a long way in our games and as people,” Raducanu said. “I’m sure it’s going to be hugely different from the last time we met.”
The meeting marks the first teenage Grand Slam final since the 1999 US Open, when 17-year-old Serena Williams defeated 18-year-old Martina Hingis.
Fernandez will look to give Canada their second 19-year-old champion in three years, after Bianca Andreescu defeated Williams to claim the 2019 title.
If this match felt like a changing of the guard in women’s tennis, well, Saturday’s final seems like another accelerated version of it, pitting players born 2 months apart in 2002.
Raducanu still remembers watching the 2011 Roland Garros final, when Li Na became the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title in a match seen by over 115 million people in China.
“I think for me, having a Chinese mother, she definitely instilled hard work, discipline from an early age,” Raducanu said. “I think for me, when I was younger, I took a lot of inspiration from Li Na, even now, just the way she was such a fierce competitor.”
Jorge Fernandez sees the influence of his wife bringing the same fighting spirit to his daughter’s game.
“She has Filipino blood in her,” he said. “It’s nice.”
Their pursuit of tennis success on both sides of the Atlantic made it difficult for Fernandez and Raducanu to maintain the relationship that began when they bonded from their Canadian roots at a tournament in Florida.
Raducanu said they said hello every time they saw each other. On Saturday, they can do it while standing facing each other’s net in the sport’s largest stadium.
“I’m sure there will be a great atmosphere for both of us,” Raducanu said.
The world will watch.
Associated Press writer Kiko Rosario in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.
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