How Emma Raducanu won the US Open
An analysis of Emma Raducanu's win over Leylah Fernandez in the final of the US Open and a look at the possible consequences of her historic victory.
Last Saturday, Emma Raducanu, an 18-year-old British teenager from Bromley, won the US Open.
Raducanu was playing in only her fourth tour-level event and it was only her second main draw appearance at a Grand Slam. She became the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam and didn’t drop a set en route to the title.
That’s 20 sets played, 20 sets won.
It was a fairytale in New York, a story that Emma herself still can’t quite believe - she has every right to believe it, however, as the Chinese-Romanian star played out of her skin to defeat Leylah Annie Fernandez in a high-quality final.
This article analyses how Raducanu was able to outplay her fellow teen and looks to explore what could happen as a result of the Brit’s groundbreaking victory.
Enjoy dedicated Radu-fan-us!
US Open Final: Emma Raducanu defeats Leylah Annie Fernandez 6-4 6-3
If you thought the final was spectacular, you weren’t just caught up in the glamour of the occasion.
From the baseline, the two women struck 68 winners and forced errors between them to 43 unforced errors, a rate of 25 more positive endings to points than negative endings to points, if you will1. This rate is higher than any final at the US Open since 2008, a clear indication that the two players put on explosive performances2.
Raducanu spearheaded much of this quality, generally the one aggressing whilst Fernandez relied on counter-punching technique to lead many of her attacks.
One of the areas where Raducanu was particularly excellent, in this match and throughout the preceding three weeks, was her return of serve capabilities. With her swinging lefty serve, Fernandez had won 251 of her 353 (71.1%) first serve points going into the US Open final - against Raducanu in the final, she could only manage 25 of 45, a rate of 55.6%.
That’s a BIG gap and it’s what we’ll focus on in today’s dissection!
Raducanu On Return: The Numbers
Sure, those numbers sound impressive but let’s break it down a little more - just how good were Raducanu’s returns?
As I noted after her fourth round win against Shelby Rogers, Raducanu is an aggressive yet consistent returner. Take Fernandez’s previous two rounds against the world #2, Aryna Sabalenka, and the world #4, Elina Svitolina.
Sabalenka is a massive hitter capable of hitting clean winners on return with ease. She is one of the tour’s most powerful returners, winning 28% of Fernandez’s service points in one or two swings of the racket (excluding double faults), however, she could only get her return back in play 63% of the time.
Svitolina is a bit more assured of her returns - she made 82% of them but sacrificed the upper-hand in many of the points, finishing only 15% of Fernandez’s service points in one or two of her own shots.
Raducanu arguably rivals the power of Sabalenka on return but manages to put more balls in the court. She made 74% of her returns, a happy medium between the aforementioned players, but won 32% of Fernandez’s service points in one or two shots.
That’s about one in three points where Raducanu was able to use her return to completely diffuse the advantage of the serve.
What exactly makes Raducanu’s returning so lethal?
It’s a combination of a couple of things.
Raducanu On Return: Tactics
Put simply, Raducanu doesn’t take on a ton of risk returning the serve in terms of direction.
She directed most of her returns straight down the middle of the court with plenty of pace and depth. For Fernandez, who likes to stand right on the baseline giving up little ground, this was a tough - she was often forced to dig the return off her feet, giving Raducanu plenty of time to wind up that following shot.
Give Fernandez an angle and she’ll use it - the Canadian’s counterpunching abilities would lap up any slower returns pulled wide so the safest option is hard and down the middle to finish the point on the following shot3.
Raducanu pulled this play off over and over due to her fantastic balance which allows her to play strong shots on the stretch.
Raducanu On Return: Anticipation
One specific serve that Raducanu was able to completely take away from Fernandez?
Fernandez’s first serve down the T in the deuce court, statistically her favourite serve over the last fortnight. Against Sabalenka and Svitolina, Fernandez was able to win 87% and 67%, respectively, of her first serve points to this part of the court. The lefty-ness means the serve is swinging away from the player the whole time - at an average speed of 96mph, it’s not the easiest to get a racket on.
Against Raducanu though? Fernandez was only able to win 25% of her first serves to this part of the court.
This is because Raducanu moved early to cover the serve - she was only able to do this because of her outstanding anticipatory skills.
Look at four points below from Fernandez’s final service game of the first set, where Raducanu was able to crucially break.
It’s not sorcery - Raducanu is very adept at reading where the serve is going to go.
In this case, to the casual observer (a la me), Fernandez gives away a visual cue on the ad serve in particular. Her body is strongly coiled for a serve down the T, her left elbow a fair bit away from her body - on the serve out wide, the arm is closer to the body, the coil of her body not so prominent.
Geez though, it’s subtle, and if there is a similar (but opposite) cue on the deuce side, Fernandez does a decent job of disguising it. She sometimes coiled her body strongly, which would suggest a serve out wide on the deuce side, but would deliver it down the T, or vice versa - it looked as though she tricked Raducanu with this a couple of times. Not only that, Fernandez’s toss doesn’t seem to differ much on any of her serves.
That’s what it looked like to me anyway. If none of this is true, worst case scenario, Raducanu went to the T serve early simply to take her favourite serve away from Fernandez giving her something to think about, occasionally guessing wide instead…
… Which is still a very smart tactic that other players didn’t employ! If Raducanu was guessing, however she was guessing correctly a lot…
If I had been coaching Fernandez, I would have told her to serve to the body more often, specifically closer to the backhand side to jam up the return. The body serve can be very difficult to read, especially when the opponent moves early to return the ball, and with enough pace can be a nightmare to return with interest.
Out of wide, body and T serves, Fernandez actually won the highest percentage of points using a body serve4.
Still, there’s a high chance Raducanu would eventually have been able to adjust - she was ready for nearly every damn serve Fernandez could throw at her.
Emma Raducanu: 2021 US Open Champion
Emma got the balance just right against her peer.
Her virtuosic returning performance, combined with her strategic decision to change the direction of the ball early in a rally and her better-than-her-usual-level serving performance, created the perfect antidote to Fernandez’s tricky lefty serve and tight-angled groundstrokes.
What happens next?
Well, for the British public, the miracle of Raducanu’s win will be a rewarding one. Determined not to let history repeat itself5, the LTA have allocated £25 million towards a grassroots project set up for renovation of public tennis courts and facilities all over the UK.
Not only that, Raducanu’s being successful at only 18 years old will give the next generation of tennis players the surge of much-needed motivation needed to pick up a racket. Indulging myself in an anecdotal perspective for a second, tennis clubs are often saturated with players 50 and over, legions of early 20 somethings missing from our local courts. Raducanu’s match was watched by a ton of 16-34 year olds and her Twitter following increased by 363.8k during the US Open, a decent indication that she could be a spectacular spokesperson for a host of young inspirees.
… Okay, but what about Emma? What happens next for her?
… Let’s just wait and see.
Many have “underperformed” after winning their first Slam at a young age. Take a look at recent history.
Sofia Kenin: The Grand Slam player of 2020, at 21 years old, Kenin won the Australian Open and reached the final of the French. From a 24-9 record in 2020, however, Kenin has dropped to 11-10 this year.
Jelena Ostapenko: Ostapenko won the 2017 French Open at 20 years old. Since reaching the semis at Wimbledon in 2018, she hasn’t been past the third round of a Slam. She spoke about the pressure she faced post-Slam as a warning to Raducanu.
“It’s probably harder to stay at the top than it is to get there… Everyone expects you to win every tournament, to play at the same level all the time and to beat everyone.”
Bianca Andreescu: Andreescu won the 2019 US Open at 19 years old. She hasn’t won any titles since, let alone a Slam, after struggling with injuries.
Naomi Osaka: Hardly an underperformer with four Slams to her name and the highest pay of any female athlete the world over at 23 years old - she’s relevant here though as she’s testament to the negative effects of pressure from the media. Constant expectation has left Osaka despondent when winning matches - she’s on hiatus from the sport as a result.
Apart from Osaka, none of these women have won a second Slam.
Perhaps Iga Swiatek is the other side of the coin - she won her first Slam at 19 years old last year and has followed this up by cementing her position inside the top-10 with decent showings at all four Slams this year. Still, she hasn’t won a second Slam, the stress of expectation potentially a reason for her inability to defend her title at the French this year.
I have my fingers crossed for future success of course but Emma Raducanu - you do you. If you don’t win another Grand Slam, that’s fine - after stunning the world over the last month, you’ve got nothing else to prove.
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In layman’s terms, after the serve had been played, Raducanu and Fernandez either hit a shot that couldn’t be touched by the other’s racket, or hit a shot that the other could get a racket to but couldn’t feasibly get back into the court, a combined 25 different times more than they missed the court entirely off a ball that they could have feasibly got back into court.
Here’s the full list of US Open final’s baseline winner+forced errors to unforced errors rate for all you stat nuts.
2008 (S. Williams bt. Jankovic): 80-51 = +29
2009 (K. Clijsters bt. C. Wozniacki): 59-61 = -3
2010 (K. Clijsters bt. V. Zvonareva): 36-41 = +5
2011 (S. Stosur bt. S. Williams): 40-38 = +2
2012 (S. Williams bt. V. Azarenka): 55-74 = +19
2013 (S. Williams bt. V. Azarenka): 56-94 = -38
2014 (S. Williams bt. C. Wozniacki): 41-38 = +3
2015 (F. Pennetta bt. R. Vinci): 73-62 = +9
2016 (A. Kerber bt. K. Pliskova): 78-68 = +10
2017 (S. Stephens bt. M. Keys): 37-38 = -1
2018 (N. Osaka bt. S. Williams): 40-30 = +10
2019 (B. Andreescu bt. S. Williams): 53-45 = +8
2020 (N. Osaka bt. V. Azarenka): 78-61 = +17
2021 (E. Raducanu bt. L. Fernandez): 68-43 = +25
Matthew Willis, writer of the ‘Racquet’ here on Substack, wrote a brilliant piece with a bit more depth into Raducanu’s serve direction than I’ve given. Check out that article here if you’re interested!
53% of wide serves won, 56% of T serves won, 58% of body serves won.
The LTA are often chastised for their failure to capitalise on the success of the Murray brothers. With tennis growing in popularity and accessibility, however, the LTA have clearly seized Raducanu’s win as an opportunity to begin their path to redemption.