It’s funny, if not remarkable: during a tournament that was mostly about a once-in-a-lifetime achievement before it began, another type of a once-in-a-lifetime achievement has stolen the headlines. While Novak Djokovic goes for the first calendar grand slam in decades later today, and tries to take the all-time lead in men’s major championships with 21, Emma Raducanu came from the clouds to win the women’s singles title yesterday. And her triumph might be the one thing that’s more dizzying, as hard as that may be to believe.
Raducanu became the first qualifier to win a major. Ever. In any of the four. Hadn’t happened until yesterday. Which means not only did she win the seven main-draw matches it takes to win the title, but she won three matches before that to even get into the draw. That’s 10 in a row, when she’d only won 13 matches all season until this tournament, and most of those were on the lower-level Challengers or ITF tournaments. She’d shown a flash of this at Wimbledon, where she made the fourth round, but she hadn’t even gotten into the Australian or French Open. She’d made $300,000 in prize money before New York, and now she’ll take home $2.5 million along with the trophy. It’s as if a team from the First Four got into the NCAA tournament and then won the whole thing. And if they won the whole thing by winning every game by double-digits, as Raducanu didn’t drop a set in any of those 10 matches.
Straight-set victories don’t always signify a true paddling, as matches can hinge on just a couple break points here and there. But to not lose a set in 10 matches means that Raducanu, ranked No. 150 in the world, basically won all the big points that came in front of her. Or won significantly more of them than she lost. At 18. It’s unfathomable. No one’s won the US Open without dropping a set since 2014, when Serena Williams did it.
For her final act, Raducanu kneecapped Leylah Fernandez, herself a Cinderella story as an unranked player who had defeated three top-five players on her way to the final, and two former No. 1s in the world. Fernandez had shown unreal steel in coming through three-set matches against Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina (that one in a tiebreak), and Aryna Sabalenka. But she seemed to run out of gas just a touch in the final, with her first serve going a bit wayward, and Raducanu eating up the second serve that she got far too many looks at. Still, for Raducanu to swat aside a player on just as big of a heater as she was on the biggest stage she’s seen by miles... it’s just ridiculous.
While Djokovic’s march has been about a career arc and the slow march of his domination that has now seeped into every facet and place of the game, one of the reasons we watch sports is to see a complete shock. Raducanu’s surprise domination of this tournament is two weeks of that kind of brilliance. It’s the other pole of sporting excellence, the one we couldn’t see coming instead of the one where we marvel at how far we’ve watched it come over the years. One’s a slow invasion until there’s nothing else, the other is just a giant flash mob. Both reminding you why you bother — because you might always see something you haven’t seen before and might not see again.
Wherever Raducanu’s career goes from here, and as just a teenager the expectation and hope is that she’ll be around a while, she has done something that her name will be connected to forever. Someone wins the US Open every year. No one has ever won it like her, and whenever anyone even approaches a repeat performance, it’ll be her name that’s invoked. Only a select few get to achieve that, which is the true joy of witnessing something like yesterday.