/Opinion: Emma Raducanu hoisted the singles trophy, but tennis was the big winner at this US Open

Opinion: Emma Raducanu hoisted the singles trophy, but tennis was the big winner at this US Open


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NEW YORK — It is a brutal thing that tennis does to the losers of Grand Slam finals. First, they have to sit in a chair for several minutes while a stage gets assembled when they’d probably rather be anywhere else.

Then, they have to go up on that stage and accept a runner-up trophy they don’t really want, address the crowd and compliment their opponent, then retreat to the background of a party where they’re the only one not celebrating. 

Leylah Annie Fernandez, the 19-year-old from Canada who won the hearts of New Yorkers over the last two weeks, had to experience that Saturday after she lost the U.S. Open final. As the winner, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu, sat on her bench singing “Sweet Caroline,” Fernandez removed the band holding her hair in a bun and waited with a blank expression. 

Then she took the microphone and smiled as best she could, choking back tears with nearly every word. Nobody would have blamed her if she wanted to just get out of there. 

But just as the ceremony was about to move on to the real business of handing Raducanu the sterling silver trophy that goes to the winner, Fernandez made it clear she had one more thing to say about an event that occurred a year before she was even born in a country that is not her own.  

“I know, on this day, it was especially hard for New York and everyone around the United States,” she said. “I just want to say, I hope I can be as strong and as resilient as New York has been the past 20 years. Thank you for always having my back, thank you for cheering me. I love you New York and hope to see you next year.”

With all the emotions of her own journey still so raw, Fernandez’s presence of mind to acknowledge the 20-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in this city was perhaps the most beautiful moment of the entire tournament. 

And it brought home something about the U.S. Open final, and really the entire two weeks, that should make the sport of tennis feel great about its future. 

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For the young women who emerged in starring roles this week — and not just Fernandez and Raducanu, but also Coco Gauff and Caty McNally who will play in the doubles final Sunday — tennis was only a part of what made them so impressive. As they introduced themselves to the world, their maturity, their curiosity, their empathy and their class was simply astounding. 

From a tennis perspective, we don’t know how much this generation is going to win. But in many more important ways, we already have a pretty good sense of what this generation is going to be. 

“When I woke up this morning, I looked at the date and I remembered watching just movies about what happened and then asking my parents like what exactly happened on that day,” Fernandez said hours after the match, elaborating on what inspired her to pay tribute to such a solemn day. “I was just so in shock when they told me and they told me what they were doing when they saw the news. 

“Obviously I don’t know much about what really happened, but with the information I do have, I know New York has suffered a lot when it did happen and I wanted to let them know they’re so strong and so resilient and they’re just incredible. Having them here happy, lively and going back to the way they were and having my back during these tough moments has made me stronger and made me believe in myself a lot more.”

It’s important to understand that tennis, as wonderful as the sport can be, isn’t always the best incubator for well-rounded human beings. It is an individual, often selfish sport where there is only one winner at every tournament and the margins are tiny between making it big and foundering at the lowest levels. 

So many of these kids spend their formative years in competition with each other for attention, for sponsorships and trophies. And lives are structured to give them the best chance for success, which often means that they’ve grown up knowing nothing other than adults catering to them. 

And yet, with these young ladies we’ve been learning about the last two weeks, you don’t see any of that in how they talk or how they act.

Gauff, in particular, has been a revelation. We already knew that she was mature beyond her years and that she handled the craziness of becoming a 15-year-old superstar as well as could be expected.

But for a lot of people in her position, this week wouldn’t have been easy. Gauff has been the best player of her age group for a long time — the first one to make the second week of a Grand Slam, the first one to break into the top 100, top 50, top 25 of the rankings.

Now here come Fernandez and Raducanu, players she ran across all the time in juniors, advancing through the U.S. Open draw while the furthest she’s gone at a Grand Slam is the quarterfinals. And she genuinely wanted nothing more than for one of them to win the tournament.

“I’m just super inspired by both of them,” she said. 

There was also a touching moment Friday when Gauff was clearly shaken up and on the verge of tears after she and McNally advanced to the doubles final because one of their opponents, Luisa Stefani, suffered a knee injury in the first set and had to be taken off the court in a wheelchair. 

As a player, you either have that kind of empathy for an opponent or you don’t. There’s no way to fake it. And for Gauff, it’s just part of a consistent theme of looking at everything through a big-picture lens, which seems almost impossible to do when you’re 17. 

“I think mental health is the most important thing to take care of first, then everything else can go along,” she said. “For me, I just try to make sure that I’m having fun on the court. The moment you’re not having fun is the moment you’re not going to have a long career, at least in my opinion.”

Raducanu, who leaves as the U.S. Open champion, also seems so much older than 18. Unlike a lot of players, who end up being home schooled when they show promise in tennis so that they can more easily travel to big events, Raducanu went to a real high school in London. She said her mother, who is Chinese, instilled the values she grew up with of hard work, discipline and education. 

It is perhaps to Raducanu’s immense long-term benefit that until two years ago, she never really expected to be a pro tennis player.

“I always have my education as a backup,” she said. “I was doing it alongside my tennis. I had options. I still do.”

Tennis, of course, is now more than an option – it’s her destiny. And the sport will be better for it. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken