Tennis on a Saturday night? Well, if you must. As Amazon Prime Video and Channel 4 were power-sharing the match and broadcasting it live, it seemed almost rude not to tune in for the showdown between the UK’s Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez from Canada.
After all, this was more than just a tennis final. At Flushing Meadows, two teenagers were making history; two girls stepping onto the iconic blue courts and into their destiny, ushering in a new era in the world of grand slam tennis.
On the nation’s sofas, British sporting fans, so used to disappointment and second best, popped open a beer and steeled themselves for the worst. In the television studios, presenter Catherine Whitaker tried to pan for prophetic nuggets of gold from her courtside commentators Mark Petchey and Martina Navratilova.
‘These two women have had such different routes through to this final,’ she began. ‘Emma has been breezing through all her matches, while Fernandez has been gutsing out three-setters. Mark, do you expect tonight’s match to follow one of those two scripts?’
The only possible answer to this imbecilic opener was a firm ‘yes’. But that wouldn’t have been any fun.
‘I mean it’s just impossible, to be honest, to kind of know, you know,’ he replied, with the startling candour of one whose tenure as a sporting pundit might well be short-lived. He tried again. ‘You could argue each side of the equation,’ he hedged, before finally plumping for the opinion that Emma was ‘fresher in the legs’ while Leylah was ‘battle hardened’.
As Amazon Prime Video and Channel 4 were power-sharing the match and broadcasting it live, it seemed almost rude not to tune in for the showdown between the UK’s Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez from Canada
It made them sound like a couple of boiling chickens on the slab in Morrisons. Meanwhile, former champ Navratilova was the cheesy essence of extra-mature pragmatism when asked how the young women would deal with the pressure.
‘I think they will both handle it well. Youth is more brave,’ said the woman who has been in 32 grand slam finals herself. It was Martina’s considered, if rather depressing opinion that it gets harder as you get older because ‘you have so few chances left’.
Yet for nearly two hours, Raducanu and Fernandez fought like teen gladiators for every point, playing each shot and set as if it were their last. Their clash turned into a thrilling display of power and grace from both players, unfolding in a drama that literally had it all – blood, sweat and tears.
Towards the end of the match, unflinching cameras caught the full force of Fernandez’s annoyance when play was stopped at a crucial point so that medics could tend to a bleeding cut on Raducanu’s leg. I say annoyance. I’m being polite. Leylah had a fit of Veruca Salt-type velocity, turning into a furious mini-skirted mini-McEnroe before our very eyes. Was her reaction justified? Not according to the pundits.
‘That is the rule. It is not Raducanu’s choice. If blood is streaming down your leg, take care of it,’ said Navratilova.
‘I don’t honestly think she has an awful lot to complain about,’ said a tetchy Petchey, even as Fernandez raged on. Still, she recovered enough to make a pretty speech about being ‘as strong and resilient as New York’ and vowing that she would be back to win ‘the right trophy’ in the future.
All this took place in the cauldron of the Arthur Ashe Stadium. The size of it! With a capacity of nearly 24,000 it is the largest tennis stadium in the world, making the Centre Court at Wimbledon (capacity 15,000) look like a tiddly toy set.
The 18-year-old girl who had reduced all these grown men to emotional rubble was the most composed of them all
Emma Raducanu has broken though and will now be expected to compete at the highest level on an international tennis circuit that is notorious for eating its young
The cameras kept panning to vaguely familiar Hollywood types in the crowd, but with no obliging voiceover, we didn’t know who they were.
More entertainingly, viewers were treated to regular close-ups of the Fernandez camp as they screamed and hollered for their girl. Leylah’s glamorous, dark-haired mother and drop dead sisters looked like a coop of Kardashians, boiling with passion and lip gloss as they fist-pumped every point.
By contrast, the dudes in the Raducanu camp were British to the core. Andy Richardson, taciturn coach of granite, kept his emotion in check and his cap pulled low over his eyes at all times.
When Emma climbed through the crowds to hug him after her victory, he was pink-eyed, unable to speak. The rest of her team were also visibly moved, while down on the sidelines, commentator and friend Tim Henman was trying to keep it together. ‘I’m shaking, my legs are like jelly,’ he cried.
Meanwhile, the 18-year-old girl who had reduced all these grown men to emotional rubble was the most composed of them all.
‘I hope that me and Leylah put on a good performance today,’ she said, in a charming understatement. Let us hope that her charm and resolve will stand her in good stead on the long road ahead.
Emma Raducanu has broken though and will now be expected to compete at the highest level on an international tennis circuit that is notorious for eating its young.
Yet this weekend she proved she had the mental and physical strength to survive a partisan crowd that cheered when she made a mistake, and the histrionics of a mighty and talented opponent. Perhaps the final words should go to Mark Petchey, taking a moment after this stunning victory.
‘Deep breath. Exhale. Where do we go from here?’ he wondered.