[OPINION] Emma and Leylah’s twin triumphs at the US Open transcend tennis

(Disclosure: Two sets of granddaughters have become our family’s source of joy and pride. Leila, now 10, and Luna, 8, the children of our daughter, live in London, not far from the borough of Bromley in South London where Emma Raducanu began to play tennis at the age of five; the other set, Lilia, likewise 10 in a week’s time, and Micah, 7, children of our son John, live in the town of Compton not far from Laval in Quebec, Canada, where Leylah took up her first lessons in tennis.  

It was with our “apos” in mind that I followed the epic journeys of these two teenage sensations, the prodigies named Emma and Leylah, who played in the finals of the US Open championships. In my mind, the two played brilliant tennis. More than that, however, they showed the importance of character and composure, grit and grace that go beyond sports – with the hope that they can inspire other young girls to excel in all they do.) 

The amazing exploits executed by the two teenagers who reached the finals of the US Tennis Open, one of the four major grand slams in the sport, have been described as “incredible and unbelievable” by legends of the sport like Martina Navratilova and Virginia Wade. Never before has a qualifier – male or female – ever won a grand slam event in tennis, or an unheralded outsider cut down to size three of the sports’ top five players, multiple champions all, in just a fortnight’s work. Seeing the joy in their game and the sheer magnitude of their accomplishment on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows in New York seem to have encouraged political leaders, luminaries in other fields, and even the British Queen herself to send messages of congratulations to the finalists who graced the Arthur Ashe court – named after a sportsman who towered above all the others in the prime of his sporting career, whose stature has grown through the years.

In the process, I have written down what I call “five takeaways beyond tennis” that I would like to share and underscore.  

1. Joy in the journey

One sports commentator has described Emma’s experience in the US Open as “one of the most astonishing break-out runs in living memory.” At the end of May 2021, she was ranked just number 366 in the world. This was only her second grand slam tournament which she was able to enter by merit of being a “qualifier.” Yet, she won the tournament without losing a single set. Moreover, she did so with the utter joy of a person who surprised herself with the way she performed every game she played. She would enter the court with her trademark break-out smile and in the midst of difficult moments, she would encourage herself, uttering the words, “Let’s go!” in her inimitable way.

In the case of Leylah, she described her road to the finals as “magical.” Hers was a more difficult path to the finals as she cut down to size higher-ranked multiple champions, yet she soldiered on with the confidence of a pro. At the final press conference (extremely difficult for the loser of the finals to undergo; a fact underscored by Naomi Osaka) she stated that the fortnight in New York was an experience that she truly enjoyed. When asked what she took away from the two weeks, she replied that she had become “more outgoing,” urging the crowd in the 24,000-seat capacity stadium to cheer her on. In turn, this brought out more joy in the way she played the game.   

A former champion, Andy Roddick, wrote that the two finalists were welcome “gifts to tennis and to all of sports” – nowadays especially, when sports in general are in desperate need of a reboot, particularly after more than a year of lockdowns that practically paralyzed spectator sports in most countries.

2. Defeat can be a better teacher than victory

In the Wimbledon Tennis Championships this year, Emma reached the fourth round on July 5 but had to withdraw from the match against the Aussie player Ajla Tomljanovic because of breathing problems, which she admitted was due to all the hype that had taken its toll on her psyche. It was a defeat that she would learn from, allowing her to reflect and recalibrate her approach to the game. She resolved to be more mindful, and to become stronger physically and mentally. 

Never before has a “qualifier” performed so well at such a young age in one of the world’s biggest stages, raising her game to such an “unbelievable level” (a phrase used by the former British Number 1 Laura Robson) that she has been catapulted to world women’s tennis number 23 – but only after bouncing back from defeat and recovering from some form of mental and physical meltdown just barely three months back.

In Leylah’s case, she was dropped from the national tennis program in Canada. In fact, one of her teachers told her that she had no future in the sport, and that it would be better if she just concentrated on her studies. Her family then decided that they had to move to find better training opportunities elsewhere, as in Florida. It was her father, an athlete himself, and a former pro soccer player from Ecuador who had to accompany Leylah in her journey to excel in tennis. Leylah used her setbacks to motivate her in the giant-slaying exploits she accomplished in the US Open.

3. Cool under pressure

If there is one word that can explain the unprecedented advance to the finals of both Emma and Leylah, it is this: poise. They both exhibited remarkable poise and a steady calmness in the face of adversity. In my own work with scholar-athletes, I would call that a high “Adversity Quotient” (AQ) in sports, which translates into a steady self-belief and which allows one to transform risks into opportunities.  

As Emma put it when she was asked how she did it in the finals: “I play one point at a time…. I had to fight hard for the first set, and had to rely on my 'clutch serves' to get ahead in the final set.” She added: “I simply focus on my game plan, and play one point at a time.” She was mindful of the “now,” and she was, as she put it, “zoned in.” 

Both players were fearless and focused. They exhibited what one commentator described as “impeccable temperament” – best expressed perhaps by Emma’s brave baseline game and Laylah’s wide variety of shots, which included her dead-pan drop shots.  

It is perhaps no coincidence that when both Emma and Laylah walked through the tunnel that leads to the center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, a quotation from the legendary Billie Jean King was etched on the wall: “Pressure is a privilege.”

4. Multi-racial backgrounds

Both Emma and Laylah were born in Canada of migrant families with mixed heritage, though Emma’s family moved to London in the United Kingdom when she was only two. Both came from multi-racial backgrounds (Emma had a Romanian father and a Chinese mother; Laylah had an Ecuadorian father and a Filipino-Canadian mother). Both are multi-lingual (Emma speaks Mandarin besides English; Leylah speaks flawless English, French, and Spanish, and a few words in Filipino like “lolo” and “adobo”).  

Both had close family ties and gained their self-worth from nurturing and caring parents. In brief, they had a positive upbringing that proves what societies gain when they welcome the contributions of other people with different backgrounds. As Emma puts it, she owes her discipline to her Chinese mother, while Leylah credits her family for helping to “ground” her and take on life’s uncertain challenges. In the post-game conference, she added some spice and family banter: “My dad is hard to please, but I managed today.” In fact, Emma revealed that her father said to her on the phone after the win: “You’re even better than your dad thought.”

5.  Maturity beyond one’s years

Emma once described herself as “the quiet one who didn’t really raise her hand” in the classroom. Her teachers describe her as an able “model student” who focuses on her schoolwork as well as her sport. Just a few months ago she delivered a remarkable A* in Maths and an A in Economics in her A-Level results (the equivalent of a high school finish in the Philippines) at the Newstead Wood School in the borough of Bromley, where she also attended the town’s tennis academy.

Both players have an emotional and mental maturity beyond their years.  And the best example I can think of is the manner in which Leylah responded and addressed the crowd soon after she had just lost in the finals, which fell on the 20th anniversary of the events of 9/11. 

Fresh on the minds of people in the stadium were the events commemorating the September 11, 2001 tragedy, which struck the people of the city as planes were deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers in New York and adjacent areas. As Leylah herself put it: “When I woke up this morning, I realized that it was September 11. So, I asked my parents what happened on that fateful day and they explained to me the tragic events which transpired.” 

Thus, when it was her turn to speak before the people at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Leylah had the presence of mind and the maturity to acknowledge what New Yorkers had undergone, “I hope I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the last 20 years.” Words of comfort and wisdom to the assembled people of New York and the world, pronounced by an athlete who also considered herself a “citizen of the world.” – Rappler.com

One of the framers of the 1986 Constitution, Professor Ed Garica is a former “life-coach” of FEU’s scholar-athletes, and author of "Servant Leader Leni Robredo, Next Gen Edition," published by San Anselmo Press, 2021. He is also author of “Dugout Diaries: Championship Run” and “Volleyball Diaries,” both published by FEU Publications, to be launched at the end of September 2021.