US Open 2021 – Part 1
One of the best slams ever. That’s what it was called. It was in a number of ways.
The crowds were back. Well almost. Firstly, the qualifying was played without crowds, then everyone was allowed to come in, provided they could prove they had had at least one dose of the covid vaccine. Inevitably it caused long queues in the first few days as local officials worked out the finer details of the airline style security measures. The irony of this measure is there is no such requirement for the players, more than 50% of whom are unvaccinated. This is a story that will surely run and run.
The most bizarre/interesting match of the first round was between Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. As good and as close as their previous matches, it went to a third set tie-break that Stephens won 9-7. Just four years ago (2017) this encounter was the final. Since then both their rankings have slipped below the top 32 and thus neither player was seeded. An indication, if any were needed, that in today’s women’s game it is hard to maintain your ranking and even harder to repeat previous successes.
Whilst this latest chaotic fight for supremacy was playing out, an interesting side story was being told elsewhere. I say elsewhere, but what I really mean is what usually happens on the outside courts. The first week dramas where the smart spectators go to watch future players. The “I was there when…” moments. We are so used to these lights shinning so brightly and then fizzing out shortly after that nobody, not even the most optimistic pundits, saw this coming. Yes, I am talking about Emma.
I pick up the action from round 3 versus Sara Sorribes Tormo, ranked 37 from Spain. Having won 3 rounds of qualifying plus 2 rounds main draw (Stefanie Voegele R1 & Shuai Zhang R2) this match was meant to be a step up from anything previous. None of this played out. Apart from a long first service game by Sorribes Tormo in which she was broken, it looked like being a double bagel. Sara played aggressively but Emma had all the finishing shots. 6-0,6-1
Round 4 versus Shelby Rogers. This was Emma’s first match on Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was meant to be a step up as well as being on Ashe. Nowhere to hide. Shelby started strongly using a strong forehand. A long opener gave Shelby a break of serve. She held her serve and then created a two-break chance at 15-40 for a 3-0 chance. Emma served two great points to save this game and despite still being a break down won eleven games in a row. Why? Emma consistently hit the ball down the line and generally rushed Shelby who missed a couple of backhands in the first set and served a double fault in the second. For Shelby this match was on the back of beating world number one Ash Barty so should have had momentum, yet Emma brushes her aside as if she wasn’t there. First wow moment. 6-2, 6-1
Quarter-Final versus Belinda Bendic ranked 12 seeded 11. Meant to be a step too far this time. Beginning to feel a prediction trend, but the pundits’ voices not entirely matching the words! Again, a slow start from Emma, but Belinda (the recent Gold Medal winner at the Tokyo Olympics) has really strong ground strokes. Her double handed backhand is penetrating. At 3-2 up serving though, she nets a backhand to level up. Now she’s under pressure. Emma is bringing her passing shots more into play. Another break point, a forehand down the line. 5-3 to Emma. A few minutes later, having been 15-30 behind, she rolled off three points to bag the first set. A feat that seemed unlikely at the start. A Tim Henman jaw dropping moment.
Surely now Belinda Bendic would change things up and take control. Change it did. Bigger serves, bigger groundies. It earned Belinda a couple of break points, but Emma stuck with her. At one all Belinda suddenly started coming forward more, hitting some amazing volleys. Two all proved to be the crucial moment. Belinda made a couple of great saves but at 30-40 Emma hit such an early forehand return it was a clean winner. At 2-4 Emma had a point for a double break but Belinda increased her ferocity. Her double handed drive volleys were particularly impressive and held on to force Emma to serve out. Emma responded by hitting sidelines and baselines. No fear at all. Stunning finish. Wow times two. 6-3, 6-4
Semi-Final versus Maria Sakkari from Greece. Yes, you’ve guessed it. This was meant to be a tough one. Very strong and imposing, this was Maria’s second grand slam semi-final of the season having reached the same stage at the French open, only just missing out to Barbara Krejcikova, who went on to win French open 7-9 in third. In this US Open her last three rounds were against Petra Kvitova, Bianca Andreescu and Karolina Pliskova. All top ten players so solid form coming in. Maria’s biggest shot is her forehand which she tried to introduce from the first game. There was a single break point against Emma, but when that passed the forehand started to miss. Emma’s consistency on returns kept placing Maria’s serving games under pressure. For a moment it could have been a 6-0 set, but she managed to salvage a game. Maria’s game is aggression so not surprisingly this increased at the start of the second. Maria held but a couple of games later Emma picked the right shots which she sent back twice as fast. Another break achieved. Unfortunately for Maria the pressure simply increased. She could have been a double break down at 1-3 but doubled her efforts to save two points and at 2-4 she saved five more, three from 0-40. Whilst Maria held her next game it was Emma who served out from 5-4 up. Such confidence displayed for one so young and into her first grand slam singles final to boot. Double jaw dropping Tim Henman moment.
Earlier that evening Laylah Fernandez from Canada had pulled off a three-set win against Aryna Sabalenka, the number two ranked player. We were to have the first all teenage final since the William sisters in 1999. What a prospect.
So, what about Laylah. A left hander. Not exactly plain sailing. Her first two rounds were straight sets, but 3 of the 4 sets were tight. A tie-break against Ana Konjuh, then 7-5,7-5 v Kaia Kanepi in round 2. In each round from round 3 to the semi-final, she won in the third set, causing an upset in round 3 by knocking out the defending champion Naomi Osaka 6-4 in third, followed by Angelique Kerber 6-2 in third (R4), Elina Svitolina 7-6(5) (QF) and then Aryna Sabalenka 6-4 (SF). To add to this Laylah played 3 rounds of doubles with Erin Routliffe. Oh, and she turned 19 during Open. If Laylah was exhausted, she did well to hide it.
The final. Have you watched many matches that are amazing from the get-go? The ball striking was clean, the winners frequent. Emma made a quicker start, holding after saving a break point. Had Laylah at 0-40 but required all three. Emma could have gone up 3-0 but Laylah broke back. At 2-2 Laylah had a chance to go 3-2. Any of the next four games could have gone either way. At 4-5 Laylah faced several set points, saving many but on the last one Emma crunched a forehand down the line. First set 6-4. Tim Henman now sharing his spot with Pam Shriver. Interview for US TV.
After holding serve in first game of second set, Emma had chance to break Laylah, but Laylah roared back and took her own chance to break at 1-1.
Now it seemed that maybe a momentum change might take place. Emma had other ideas. She broke back, again by the smallest of margins. Now she has break chances of own. On the 30–40-point Laylah runs round her backhand to crunch a forehand, but Emma anticipates it and hits a running forehand down the line. OMG its 4-2! An almighty roar from the 23 thousand capacity crowd. At 2-5 Emma has a couple of championship points but rushes them both. Now its 5-3 and Emma is serving for it. Laylah crushes the first return; the crowd want more! Again at 15-15 all, Laylah inches forward a point. The noise is extraordinary. Emma comes back, a few more points are swapped. Advantage Emma. An ACE! She’s done it! She can’t believe it. Tim Henman can’t believe it. He keeps saying “It’s a joke, it’s amazing, it’s a joke”. It’s ok Tim, to say you don’t know how she did it. None of us know. Three weeks, ten matches without dropping a set. Such confidence, such clarity for an 18-year-old. US Open Champion 2021.
Emma’s coach: Andrew Richardson. A softly spoken man who was a pro between 1992-2000. Whilst having mixed success as a singles player, he won 5 doubles titles, one with Tim Henman in Seoul in 1995. He was later to be best man at Tim’s wedding. Since then, he has coached various British players before Emma. Since writing this article, Emma announced she was parting with coach Andrew as she is seeking someone with more experience on the tour. A life changing moment for Andrew, twice over.
A notable attendee of Emma’s matches on Ashe was Virginia Wade, the first winner of the US Open ladies’ singles in the open area in 1968 as well as the centenary winner at Wimbledon in 1977. So, 44 years since a British woman has a won a grand slam. Another achievement added to the list. We should leave the last words to Virginia Wade “She’s the real deal”