Leylah Fernandez, left, and Emma Raducanu pose with their trophies after the U.S....

Leylah Fernandez, left, and Emma Raducanu pose with their trophies after the U.S. Open women's final at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A year ago Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez came to the U.S. Open as teen dreamers at the outset of their careers. Little did they expect or know that on the second Saturday of America’s Grand Slam they would be playing for the championship in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Raducanu, then 18, prevailed in that massively surprising final, winning in two sets over Fernandez, who turned 19 during the Open. Raducanu was ranked 150th in the world at last year’s Open, Fernandez 73rd. Raducanu became the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam and didn’t drop a set in 10 matches though she only faced two seeded players.

Fernandez had a considerably more difficult row to hoe, having to overcome No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 3 Naomi Osaka and No. 5 Elina Svitolina.

Now they return to Flushing Meadows as seeded players with Raducanu ranked 11th and Fernandez ranked 14.

But since their dream finish at last year’s Open, there has been a healthy dose of reality for the pair, dealing with injuries and millions of pairs of eyes watching their every move. Radacanu is on her fourth coach in the 13 months, the Russian Dmitry Tursunov.  

Raducanu  has not won a tournament since the Open and hasn’t got past the third round of any event, though she did beat Serena Williams in the first round at Cincinnati two weeks ago.  

Fernandez suffered a stress fracture of her right foot at the French Open and just returned to competition this month.  She won a tournament in Mexico but has only played 27 matches this season (17-10).

Both players were cheerful and optimistic during their media availability on Friday at the National Tennis Center, though Raducanu did seem to suffer from a possible right injury during her practice earlier in the day that caused her to cry for a bit, though she dismissed the thought that it was significant.

“I had a few small things, got a couple of blisters, a bit of a niggle here and there,” said Raducanu.  “It’s just one of those weird days where you just feel a bit out of it.”

As for last year’s Open Raducanu was particularly proud of coming through qualifying, giving “qualifying” a good name.

“I think since then, qualifying is viewed as a good thing,” said Raducanu. “I don't think it's viewed as, ‘Oh, you're in qualifying.’ I think it's actually a positive in a lot of cases.”

As for making the run to the final and winning the title, she feels as if she and Fernandez were inspirations. “I also think that a lot of other players in the field have the belief, like, I can do that, too,” said Raducanu. “Maybe before there was this stigma that only the top few players could do it. I think what we achieved shows that anything can happen really.”

As for defending at title, Raducanu has her own way of looking at it.

“I think defending a title is just something that the press makes up,” said Raducanu  “I'm just taking it one match at a time. Like, every single player is very capable in this draw. I just focus on what I'm doing, my own trajectory. As I said last year, I'm just going to do things my way.”

Fernandez says that as great as last year’s Open experience was, being a pro is always looking ahead to the next match, the next challenge. They have not played each other since, but have chatted a few times.

“I think it's funny because we do run into each other a few times, but we don't talk about New York,” said Fernandez.  “I think we both have the same mindset, that we want to think about the present and not about the past. We know, like, New York happened. It was so much fun, but we're so focused on the tournament that's happening, our own training, that we're happy to see each other, we're happy that we are both doing well.”

“I think the message is nothing is impossible and dreams do come true,” said Fernandez. “I think doing it here in New York was even greater because New York is where all dreams do come true.”

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