Every now and again you get a real-life Rocky-style sports story that you would struggle to believe. Something more akin to Hollywood than the sporting arenas of Planet Earth.
Think Leicester City winning the Premier League title in 2016, Tiger Woods defying the odds to claim the Masters at Augusta in 2019 or Andy Murray claiming the Wimbledon crown in 2013.
This past fortnight, we witnessed another unlikely fairy-tale on the tennis courts of Flushing Meadows in New York. And this story might just top the lot.
Three weeks ago, a young tennis player arrived in America from England to take part in the US Open qualifiers. Her return ticket was already booked before the first round proper as she knew her ambitions and had made the trip to simply gain a bit of experience and maybe pick up a few ranking points.
Emma Raducanu was unheard of outside her own house at the end of August, but now she is the toast of the sporting world as a sensational run in New York saw her claim the US Open crown on Sunday against Leylah Fernandez.
Raducanu’s achievement, at the age of 18, is made all the more remarkable as she is the first ever player — male or female — to triumph at Flushing Meadows having come through the qualifiers.
Take a deep breath: Raducanu defeated Bibiane Schoofs, Mariam Bolkvadze and Mayar Sherif in straight sets just to reach the main draw. From there is was straight-sets victories over Stefanie Voegele, Zhang Shuai, Sara Sorribes Tormo, Shelby Rogers, Belinda Bencic and Maria Sakkari before her showdown with Fernandez.
If that is a lot to take in, even Raducanu is taking stock of her rise. In the space of three weeks, she gained more than 100 ranking places, entered the top 25 in women’s singles and became the British No. 1.
“I feel great. Everything that’s happened in the last 72 hours has been so much fun,” Raducanu said this week after a whirlwind tour of the US chat shows with the US Open trophy in her arms.
“It still hasn’t really sunk in, but occasionally I’ll remember that I won the US Open. So yeah, a really funny feeling.”
And to think it may not have happened at all.
Raducanu took a break from tennis last year due to the pandemic and also because her parents insisted that she should complete her high school exams.
“Having 18 months away, coming out you play every match like you don’t know when your last match will be. That was how I was approaching the whole summer. But the biggest thing is that I never once got ahead of myself,” she said.
“For three weeks I just played the opponent in front of me, I took care of what I wanted to try and achieve on that day against that opponent, and just repeated it for three weeks.”
Raducanu has made a string of public appearances since her win last weekend, with her newfound stardom even catapulting her on to the red carpet at the Met Gala in New York on Monday.
“At the Met Gala everyone is so experienced and so accomplished in their own way and it was really cool to hear how they are and their perspective on things,” she said.
But never mind the glitz and glamour, this 18-year-old is keeping her feet firmly on the ground.
First up is a few well-earned weeks off — feet up and (don’t tell the other aspiring stars) some chocolate.
She has yet to commit to her next tournament as winning at the US Open brings a host of automatic berths in competitions and a multitude of invitations and exemptions.
“I think for me, still, I cherish the most the moments with the team after the win,” she said. “That was probably the most special night ever, when we were reflecting. Going over an unreal experience. I know I’ll get back to work probably Monday or early next week. Schedule-wise, I’m not sure.”
Despite her tender years, Raducanu is somewhat worldly wise. The British player’s father is Romanian and mother Chinese and she was born in Canada before relocating to England.
“I played some really great tennis against some extremely tough opponents and faced a lot of adversity despite the fact that I didn’t drop a set,” she said. “Those sets could have gone either way, a lot of them, because they were very tight games and the margins are so small.”
Smart head on young shoulders — even if university is a chapter yet to be written and her school days have just finished.
Like Raducanu, Fernandez also has her future mapped out.
The girls made headlines away from the tennis courts, too, and even Liverpool football club manager Jurgen Klopp — not exactly a tennis fan — sat up to take notice.
“I watched the final, and it was absolutely impressive,” the German said. “It’s been a long time since I watched a full women’s tennis game, to be honest, and I was really impressed by the power, speed, and the whole game. Women’s tennis is obviously in a brilliant moment.
“These two girls were 18 and 19, and what they showed was massively impressive. Both during the game itself, and then during the trophy ceremony. Both girls, how they spoke, that was inspiring to be honest, even more so than the tennis. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the way the two girls presented themselves.”
It is a shame someone had to lose, and in this case it was 19-year-old Leylah. Rest assured, she will bounce back.
These thrilling young stars, along with the likes of Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka, will serve up more and more classics over the decades to come. I hope the scriptwriters have their pens ready.