‘Off the charts’: New York tennis fans bewitched by Raducanu fairytale

More than three hours had passed since Emma Raducanu uncorked a 108mph ace on match point to finish off the Canadian teenager Leylah Annie Fernandez and win the most improbable US Open championship on record. The sun had long since disappeared over the west end of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and nearly all of the 23,703 spectators that had packed Arthur Ashe Stadium to the corners had dispersed.

Yet several dozen fans remained outside the gated media garden beneath the tournament’s main stadium court late Saturday night hoping for even a glimpse of the sport’s newest star – the 18-year-old from Kent who became the first qualifier ever to reach a major final, let alone win one – many of them still buzzing from excitement after witnessing an achievement that defies comparison. One that in the dizzying aftermath didn’t even seem real.

“[We’re] absolutely made up, because Britain has had a bad run with not winning many sporting events,” said Helen Bennett, who watched Saturday’s final from Section 332 in the upper bowl of Ashe with her husband, Dave, and their two children: Sophie,nine, and Luis, seven. “We all had our hopes built and we were victorious.”

Bennett, who has lived in nearby Jersey City for the past three years, said Raducanu gives her daughter a hero to look up to while offering a welcome respite from more the familiar sporting disappointments.

“It’s so good to actually see a British sportsperson win something,” she said. “I was very elated, very happy, I’m surprised I still have a voice left.”

Joining in the elation was Michael Appleton-Webster, who relocated from London to Connecticut in 1999. He described himself as still dumbstruck hours after Raducanu lifted the trophy, calling her unprecedented three-week journey from qualifier to US Open champion “surreal” and a “magnificent achievement”.

“I can’t believe what I’ve just seen over these last two weeks,” he said. “I just wish there could have been two winners tonight. Unbelievable. I was standing with some British people [in the upper deck] and we were just saying at the end: ‘Can you believe it?’

“I’ve been lucky enough to attend a lot of big things. I’ve been to a World Cup final, FA Cup finals. I went to Tottenham’s ‘81 Cup final when Ricky [Villa] scored at our end. That was just off the charts. But this was historical. It’s at least even with everything I’ve ever experienced. I went to the 2006 World Cup final in Germany and that was an amazing game, but this is more special because it’s from a British player. That’s our girl.”

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to Raducanu’s surprise title was not limited to the expat crowd. Many American fans have been drawn in by the precocious British teenager, certainly at a US Open where no man or woman from the United States reached the quarter-finals for the first time in the tournament’s 140-year history.

Grace Ma and Francis Leung, a married Chinese-American couple from downtown Manhattan who sat in the lower bowl for Saturday’s match, became so enamoured with Raducanu over the course of the tournament that they brought a Union Jack flag into the stadium and unfurled it in celebration immediately after match point.

“I ordered it Thursday night after the semi-final and it arrived today,” said Ma. “And I couldn’t leave the house today until it arrived.”

Ma and Leung attended three days at this year’s Open before the final and were quickly won over by Raducanu, on the court and off. “She hasn’t lost a set the entire US Open, including qualifiers!” Ma said. “She was so consistent, she’s got a lot of power, she’s so composed and mature for her age. She hasn’t even played that many matches professionally in her career, which is crazy. And we were here for the semis and she was just so sweet with the younger fans afterwards.”

Ma was equally impressed by Fernandez, the Canadian ingenue whose runner-up finish in only her seventh major tournament appearance included wins over Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka, a murderer’s row of contenders including two grand slam winners and three players in the world’s top five. That both Raducanu and Fernandez are children of immigrants, Ma said, only adds to their appeal.

“Regardless of who won tonight it was a win for women’s tennis,” she said. “I think it’s awesome that they’re so diverse, just the backgrounds of both players. I’m Asian, I’m Chinese, so to be able to see somebody of my ethnicity play, I think it inspires a lot of people out there. The future of tennis is really bright and I think it gives people a lot of hope.”

That sense of inspiration was shared by Beverly Joel, a graphic designer who lives in Brooklyn. She first took notice of Raducanu during her surprise run to the second week of Wimbledon and hoped to perhaps see her at the US Open, which she attends every year.

“Work was crazy so I wasn’t following the qualifiers and it wasn’t until the tournament started that I really took notice,” Joel said. “Today was the first time I saw her in person. It seemed like Fernandez had been the person who has gotten a lot more media love here, obviously. And she seemed better under pressure for the most part. But watching Raducanu, there was never any pressure to even have to worry about.”

“It’s also great watching two young players who do not have fear yet. Next year it’s going to be harder, but this tournament it’s nothing but hunger and potential.”

At a few minutes after 10pm on Saturday night, the lively cluster of fans who had remained on the grounds were rewarded for their patience when Raducanu – nowhere close to the end of her media responsibilities – stopped by briefly to offer thanks for their support while showing off her new trophy.

For nine-year-old Sophie, the chance to see her new hero a few feet away was worth the wait. “I love Emma,” she said. “I think she’s brave, brilliant and strong.”

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