2021 US Open WTA Finals Prediction
Raducanu vs Fernandez :
Jelena Ostapenko catches fire and hits the ball right past her opponents at Rolan Garros. Too offensive to be outlasted by pushing, and with the moment being too big for her opponents to really risk playing their own offense. Sloane Stephens returns from an extremely long injury hiatus and proves her power and consistency match up perfectly against the games top players. Too strong physically for the baseliners to outlast, and too prolific defensively for the offensive talents to beat for a full match. Barbora Krejčíková, who was considering retiring from singles, finds herself seemingly the best player on tour. Her backhand manages to be the best left in the tournament by the 4th round, and when players try to work her forehand they find that her time spent playing doubles means she can create easy angles that are hard to deal with in pressure moments. In the WTA, the best two out of three format in the majors tends to produce more single slam champions. This time, it wont. I won’t disparage any of those performances, but the feel to this US Open final is entirely different, even though it’s similar.
Raducanu first. How did this happen is the question flying across social media, but for those who’ve been watching, Emma Raducanu’s place in the finals makes perfect sense. Having made the 125k finals in a talented young group of players, and having almost won against Clara Tauson, it was pretty clear that she’d have a good shot to beat some of the lower tier players on tour. Reversing the result against Zhang makes sense, since Zhang is really still finding her own game. Zipping Tormo was the first sign of warning bells for me, and it made me feel strongly that she would beat Rogers. Rogers did play poorly though, so Bencic was a question mark for me. Even though Raducanu won, Bencic seemed frozen. Sakkari, I was sure, would finally show us Raducanu’s ability to play in a struggle. It didn’t happen though, and this is the 3rd or 4th match where her opponent seemed to implode. They aren’t though. In rewatching her matches, Raducanu has shown to be superior in every single aspect of the game. Her backhand is worldclass and creates short angles and also flattens the ball out when she goes down the line. The down the line backhand is the hardest shot in tennis and she is landing it near the line and not missing. As far as returning on that wing, she absolutely tees off on serves and keeps the pressure on. Her forehand doesn’t look terribly powerful but it doesn’t really miss the mark, and she’s shown remarkable ability to flatten it out down the line after serving out wide from the duece side. Her serve is pretty quick, but what’s really working best for her is her ability to create angles with it even on 2nd serves. Her play at net is excellent, and her speed around the court is as good as any of the top 20. This is a complete player, and the implosion of her opponents is due to this recognition.
When you approach a new opponent, you want to play your own game and not really focus on them, but it’s very easy to want to find the holes in their game. Does their backhand break down, do they go for too much on the run? Do they struggle with pace down the middle? Is adding topspin and height something that takes the ball out of their strikezone? These are all decent things to find out, but tennis sets are really short when two players are both playing well, and every point starts to feel terribly important. It takes time to get the answers to these questions, and if your opponent doesn’t have holes in their game, then you just wasted a lot of time warming up every aspect of their play. The other trouble with a new opponent on tour is unfamiliarity with their choices. Where does Sakkari think Raducanu is going in any given situation? She can guess, and her speed is worldclass, but the uncertainty slows down your defensive ability. Raducanu’s opponents are having to respect the possibility of two shots in every situation where they aren’t dictating, and it is making them a step late to everything Emma is doing. Some clear evidence of this is the margin that Raducanu hits some of her shots with. There were balls she hit a few feet inside the lines last night that Sakkari just barely got a racquet on. As Emma plays more on tour, players will start to get familiar with her, and most phenoms tend to have a tough bunch of losses after their breakout performances (FAA, Shapo, Zverev, Sinner have all had this). Right now though, oof, she is making it look like she is already a step beyond her opponents.
For Sakkari, this was a tough loss, and it’s easy to understand her frustration. She was well positioned to win the French, and had a rough loss to Krejcikova. She did the hard yards here in besting Pliskova, Andreescu, and a number of other solid opponents. Raducanu being younger does not help, and the “did I miss my chance” question is one that tennis players can do without, but that the media will float anyway because they are gossipy dillholes. As was pointed out in the DC chat, Sakkari did waste 7 break points early in the match. She seemed to have a clear advantage in the forehand exchanges, but she seemed to want to play offense on every shot, and this led to some mistakes. It’s tough to choose to grind away when you’re not really reading your opponents shots well, but it may have been a better choice here. Her fight in the second set basically set up the situation where players always get broken. That is where the implosions suddenly started to make sense. After an epic service game by Sakkari for 3-4, Raducanu got up to the line and got to 40-0 immediately. Serving for the set, she went down 0-15 and then proceeded to play clean offense and close out with four straight points. It’s one of the biggest results in the WTA in so long, and despite the history of single-slam winners, Raducanu is the real deal. A qualifier, through to the finals without dropping a set. I mean, she barely drops games. How could anyone get a set? Let’s add in that she’s extremely composed in interviews, and has a positive ego-less attitude about the whole thing. Everything is set up for her to win here, and it’s hard not to cheer while it’s happening.
Not to be outdone, Fernandez has energized the crowd in all of her matches. The only fault I can give her when comparing her to Raducanu is that Fernandez screwed up by already showing us on tour that she’s going to be great. How dare you warn us ahead of time by competing well against top players and by winning a title? HOW DARE YOU? Listening to Fernandez’s interview after her win, I found tears coming into my eyes. The kid is just so damn likable. Great moments in sports are why we watch, and these are them. Fernandez has always been very consistent, but this moment and draw has lined up perfectly for her. I honestly would not choose her to win 4 difficult matches in a row, but give her a chance in any 1 single match. What’s new this week is her serving. She’s locating her second serve extremely well, and her and Emma have both thrived by going out wide in tense moments. Tennis pressure is real, and the out-wide serve is a pretty mundane tactic in early rounds, but worth a ton of points as things get to the late rounds. It’s one of Federer’s best tactics on key points, and we’ve seen Tiafoe’s kick serve on seconds pay dividends in big matches.
Fernandez is accurate this week, but she also gets a ton of bend on her serve. Most sliced second serves tend to hang in the air for a bit, but Sabalenka had a hard time getting a clean swing as the ball continued bending into her. I feel a bit worse for her than Sakkari, because the match was very even throughout. The final service game at 0-40 down 4-5 is just an unwinnable position, and she knew it. I don’t enjoy seeing athletes know they’ve lost before they lose, but Sabalenka’s high risk high reward gamestyle is not the type to score 3 in a row from behind. She’s a frontrunner, and did seem early like she would employ her edge in power to get through. Fernandez won this match by simply moving the ball, and her backhand was a big key in this. Her ability to reflect power and hang on the baseline is coupled with her ability to redirect shots down the line. It made Sabalenka a bit hesitant to move to the next position early, and despite it being a very close match, Leylah seemed a deserved winner for keeping her level steady for the entire match. It may have served Sabalenka better to go into Fernandez’s forehand more often, since two arms are stronger than one, and Fernandez was having a field day putting backhands back in play with depth. The forehand is more dangerous to go into, but I do think that Sabalenka played a lot of this match on the move and Fernandez tends to miss more forehands down the line than any other shot. It’s the same strategy Federer uses on Nadal to decent effect on hardcourt, and Fernandez’s game seems to really be modeled completely after Nadal’s as far as shot patterns.
For the finals, I think Fernandez not feeling any pressure will be a big boost for her, and with the quality of both of their baselining, this is going to be a classic. Raducanu seems to have more power and is playing a higher level of offensive tennis, so I agree with her being a favorite (she’s something like -175 in the books). I wouldn’t overlook Fernandez’s ability to compete and make rallies long though, and when two young players play each other they tend to play a bit freer, for whatever reason. It may be the comfort level, or it may just be belief (junior matches tend to see both players sure they’re going to win very often). Fernandez is also one of the few players on tour to have actually played Raducanu before, and her speed will be an asset since Emma plays such crisp offense. This won’t be Fernandez’s only shot at a title if she keeps improving her physical strength, but I think she has played the right combination of players in this draw. I do not think Svitolina and Kerber would win sets against Raducanu, and I think she would have beaten Sabalenka in straights as well. Raducanu should be fresher physically, and I think we are looking at a multiple-slam title winner. I keep waiting for her to crack, and she just keeps showing me exceptional tennis and composure. At some point, I have to say, I agree. Raducanu in 2.