US Open: We may never see a better story in tennis or any sport

By Martin Rogers
Fox Sports Columnist

The most unexpected things in sports are also the best.

There are varying degrees of shock and surprise, and then there's what happened at the US Open on Saturday, which blew all other shocks out of the water and managed to do so while encompassing a narrative that would put a smile on even the toughest face. .

“What Emma Radukanu has achieved in New York is unprecedented anywhere,” wrote Martin Samuel of London's Daily Mail. “He would be no less amazing if he jumped out of the crowd and won the Olympic 100 meters running barefoot.”

A mere optimist in the unforgiving world of professional tennis earlier this year, Radukanu is now the sport's most electrifying new superstar, climbing to No. 150 in the past three weeks, since qualifying to pick up a Grand Slam title and $2.5 million winner's check as the ultimate prize.

That she did it with a win over another youngster known only to hardcore tennis followers, the 19-year-old Lelah Fernandez, ranked 73, only added to the script and boosted Raducanu's likes. Fans in New York, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gave their hearts to two young women who weren't born that terrible morning when so much changed.

At Arthur Ashe Stadium, Great Britain's Radukanu won, 6-4, 6-3, but it was a contest in which the age-old cliché was profoundly appropriate: It was a shame there had to be a loser.

Yet while memories of a remarkable tournament will continue to bring smiles, let's not diminish the story and achievements by Hollywood-fiefing. Sure, no qualifier had ever reached a final before, never won a Grand Slam. Never before have two players outside the top 50 reached the final. But it wasn't a fluke or some wild confluence of events.

Radukanu may have enjoyed a little luck when Jennifer Brady withdrew from the draw and world number one Ash Barty suffered a surprise exit in the third round. However, she won because, quite simply, she played the best tennis of any woman to step onto the Flushing Meadows court from the moment the event began, claiming every match she played in straight sets.

With four-pack nail-biters against Grand Slam champions Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber, Fernandez reached the showcase match with more difficulty, surviving against world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 5 Elina Sabitolina.

The matchup in the finals felt like a fairytale, but that descriptor doesn't do it justice. It was a wonderful story of two wonderful successes at the same time, but it was not some cute, short story of young women hitting the jackpot.

Radukanu and Fernandez played with smiles on their faces, but they won because of their great play and true warrior spirit. To say that the happy-go-lucky vibe of youth ran through them is a gross oversimplification. They fought, Fernández with a bit more growling and fist-pumping, Raducanu with an intense inner will that carried him to the moment of truth.

They got there through sacrifice, work, thought and strategy, not because of a script written in a star. Over the past two years, Raducanu has worked on developing incredible core strength that allows for near perfect transfer of power and timing between balls.

Fernandez moved from Canada to Florida with his family to pursue his dream and has perfected a service style that creates the ideal risk-reward ratio for a player of his height and build. They have trained and worked for thousands of hours, and they have figured out how to gain an edge in a game where everyone is looking for one.

There are no half-measures in tennis. The WTA Tour is a relentless grind of travel and tournaments around the world. Jumping up the rankings — Raducanu at 23 and Fernandez at 28 — means they'll be spared having to trudge through lower-prize-money challenger events to build their resumes.

Instead, higher quality opposition and greater expectations await.

“From the very beginning of my life, I dreamed of winning a Grand Slam. You just say these words,” Radukanu said. “But to actually execute what I believed in and win, I can't believe it.”

We may never see a better story in tennis and it will be difficult to top any sport. But let's get the story straight. It was a surprise, and it was dramatic, and it overwhelmed us all, but Raducanu and Fernandez weren't there because the situation called for them but because they deserved to be.

Martin Rogers A columnist for Fox Sports and author of the Fox Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

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