Saturday, 11 September 2021 09:50 AM EDT
Serena vs. Hingis: When teenage Grand Slam finals were the norm

Teenagers are partying like it’s 1999 in New York City.

When Emma Raducanu finished off her 6-1, 6-4 victory over Maria Sakkari on Thursday night in New York the excitement was palpable. The 18-year-old’s milestone victory was the perfect nightcap to 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez's stirring three-set victory over No. 2-seeded Aryna Sabalenka in Arthur Ashe Stadium. With two more shockers in the books, the US Open has its first all-teenage final since 1999.

In the case of Saturday’s final, shocking might even be an understatement, says former US Open singles finalist and ESPN commentator Pam Shriver.

"In a time where we've seen so much unpredictability in women's tennis, if you had tried to come up with the most improbable final, all of us on the whole ESPN team still would have never come up with thisーnever. It's like winning some sort of unlikely jackpot. Until you then see it happen and see how it happened, you wouldn't really believe it."

Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam singles title at the 1999 US Open.

Twenty-two years ago, when Serena Williams and Martina Hingis locked horns at Flushing Meadows (Williams won, 6-3, 7-6), women’s tennis was in a very different place. Hall of Fame tennis journalist Steve Flink tells that it was far more common for teenagers to dominate the sport a few decades ago.

"That was obviously a different kind of era,” Flink says. “Because Hingis herself had dominated the game at 16 and won three of the four majors in 1997 and probably should have won the Grand Slam, but she lost to Iva Majoli in the French final; It was the only one that she didn't get that year, so we were kind of used to her by '99.”

Hingis, 18-years-old at the time, was No. 1 in the world at the 1999 US Open when she made her way to the final; Serena, only 17 and without a Grand Slam title to her name, was ranked 6th. Flink remembers that most of the expectations were centered on her big sister Venus, who was No. 3 in the world, but fell to Hingis in the semifinals.

"Even though Richard Williams had already been making noise about how Serena ultimately was going to be the better player, better than Venus, we didn't think it was going to happen quite yet,” he says, adding that he was surprised that Serena, less than a month shy of her 18th birthday, was able to outpace Hingis, who was already a five-time major champion at the time. "I just remember it really surprised me. A year or two later it wouldn't have, but I thought Martina was still going to have the edge at that stage in the final, with her experience."

Shriver agrees with Flink. It was a commonly held belief that Serena was going to be a force in the game for years to come. But not many thought that 1999, at the US Open, was going to be her coming out party.

"She was already being talked about as a future major winner, just nobody thought it was going to happen at 17 at that US Open,” she says.

Especially not with the brutal draw she had.

Williams, playing in just her seventh major singles main draw, had to come through a gauntlet of top-tier talent to reach the final. She defeated four eventual Hall of FamersーKim Clijsters, Conchita Martinez, Monica Seles, and Lindsay Davenportーall in three sets to secure her place in the final.

"Early in the tournament Serena had a nice comeback against Clijsters from 5-3 down in the third and, boy, she showed a lot of gumption that whole tournament,” remembers Flink.

In a funny moment after her victory, Serena, who also took a call from President Bill Clinton after the final, was told by a reporter: “You are the first Williams sister.”

The reporter never completed the sentence but meant to say that she was the first Williams sister to win a major singles title.

Williams deadpanned: “No, Venus was born before me, actually.”

In addition to winning the singles title in 1999, Serena also captured the women's doubles title with older sister Venus. Ten years later, in 2009, the sisters teamed together again to win their second title together as a team in New York.

Photo: Along with winning the singles title, Serena Williams teamed with sister Venus to win the women's doubles title in 1999.

It was a different sport 22 years ago, and the idea of two teenagers contesting a major final was not at all far-fetched.

"We weren't as surprised back then, it wasn't as big of a deal," Flink said

This year, with Raducanu coming in ranked 150, as the first qualifier to ever reach a Grand Slam final, and Fernandez, ranked 73rd, hardly winning tennis matches since March, “expect the unexpected” has been the mantra.

"None of us could have envisioned this,” Flink said. “[For] Fernandez, it's been one of the most remarkable runs, I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like that. She's had that string of astonishing wins which show both her talent and her competitiveness and opportunism, but Emma is a different story because we are seeing someone who came out of the qualifying more than validate what she did at Wimbledon [where she reached the round of 16 in her first Grand Slam main draw], and then just obliterate everybody."

One surprise did result from the 1999 final, however. Actually, two. First, Serena went on to become the all-time Open era leader in Grand Slam singles titles, with 23ーas good as she was at 17, it would have been hard to imagine any player, of any talent level, reaching her heights.

And Hingis? She never won another major in singles. She had her chances in the ensuing years, but couldn’t take them. So the 1999 final was the beginning of the end, at least in singles, for one of the greatest legends of women’s tennis.

Flink would like to see Raducanu and Fernandez continue on the path and create a stirring rivalry that can be revisited in the years to come. But given the way that women’s tennis has played out in recent years, he knows it might be too much to ask.

"It was no shock that Serena was in the final," he concludes. "And it was a pleasant surprise that she won it. We knew that there were going to be many more. Serena was going to win a lot of majors and that was very clear that day, but now you see great players in the final like Raducanu and Fernandez, and you hopeーbut you can't count on it anymore, there's no certainty."

11 Sep 1999: Serena Williams celebrates her win over Martina Hingis of Switzerland after the singles final of the US Open at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Squire/ALLSPORT