An hours into Emma Raducanu’s stunning third-round match at last year’s US Open, she still hadn’t lost a single match, somehow. In the second grand slam event of her career, the 18-year-old was up against the ever-steady Sara Sorribes Tormo, a match that seemed destined to push Raducanu to the finish line. Instead, the young person tore her apart. Raducanu led 6-0, 5-0 with a match point on his opponent’s serve, then a game later, the victory served over his top 50-ranked opponent. With that, the idea of what she could really achieve in the days that followed began to change.
“It was at that point that I thought: ‘Whoa, wait a minute,'” says Katie O’Brien, former No. 1 British. “If you keep this level up she could be a real contender. I think we were all saying it a little tongue-in-cheek. I’m not sure there was any substance behind those words.”
Back then, the prospect of even a fourth-round run seemed unrealistic. A few months earlier, Raducanu had been inactive, his tennis on hiatus before his A level. His breakthrough at Wimbledon was on his home soil, a world away from the grip of the tour. The North American hardcourt swing was in her first extended overseas and she arrived in New York exhausted after a run to the final of a lower level event in Chicago the previous Sunday. Getting out of the three qualifying rounds would result in a successful tournament.
“I’m sure she was very happy that she qualified last year,” says O’Brien. “Perhaps there was more pressure, you could argue, in the first qualifying round. She just wanted to win a few games. And then, when she got into the main draw she was like: ‘Oh wow, I’m here now. Let’s just play.’”
Iain Bates, the LTA’s head of women’s tennis, was part of Raducanu’s team in New York and worked with her often last year. He says: “I felt it at the beginning, since she came [the event in] Chicago, if she came [qualifying] that would at least be a way to keep momentum and show where her level is that she can come through the qualifiers at a slam.”
Bates notes that Raducanu’s first practice on the unglamorous courts took place outside the tournament grounds in a nearby field, which ended up tripping another player, forcing her to finish elsewhere. “It’s ironic that the first practice was on P164 compared to where she finished in the competition,” he says.
All the little breaks seemed to fall Raducanu’s way, the kind of luck necessary for any surprise slam run. She was given a late start on Wednesday for the first qualifying round, an extra day to adjust after traveling. After qualifying, she was drawn against 13th seed Jennifer Brady and won the Australian Open final. But Brady withdrew due to injury, leaving the British player with the first round against lucky loser Stefanie Vögele, who she defeated by dropping just five games. For two weeks, Raducanu pushed the baseline, teasing her opponent as she returned to serve, and moved seamlessly, constantly trying to turn defense into attack.
Perhaps most notably, the youngster faced no opponent with the game to completely overwhelm her and emerged as an attacker in every game. “Every day, you kept thinking she was going to win because her level was so good. You felt that someone to beat her would have to be a heavy hitter, like a [Karolina] Pliskova. Someone who was going to play aggressive tennis plays and the racket needs to be taken out of his hand.”
“Almost nobody knew her,” Caroline Garcia, last week’s Cincinnati champion, says with a laugh. “I think when you’re young and you’re coming up and nobody knows you, there are always positive points on your side, because you can analyze your opponent’s game a lot and know how to it is played. But most of the time it’s hard to find good quality videos or games where they can watch how you’re doing.”
Until the end, Raducanu controlled her own destiny, attacking without hesitation, and she slammed down an ace out around the championship point against Leylah Fernandez to complete her 10th game in a row, winning her first grand slam without dropping a series.
Even before she finished celebrating with her team at their hotel that night, there were warnings of the challenges ahead. Raducanu had to adjust to her life changing overnight on and off the court. Every decision she made has been scrutinized. It was not easy. A year later, she has compiled a negative win-loss record of 15-18 and had her streak limited. O’Brien says: “She didn’t just lose one hoop [in her development]but probably 10 shots to win the US Open.”
Bates adds: “If you look at that in a normal way and you said before the US Open last year that Emma’s going to be 60, she’s beaten this number of top 30, 50 and 100 players, you can look at that and say: ‘That’s a profile I’ll sign for her.’ Everyone looks at him through a different lens and I understand that because she’s a superstar.”
Reflecting on the upcoming US Open after a successful week in Cincinnati, Raducanu said her one-sided wins over former world No.1s Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka were the first time she felt a sense of freedom. same type for the player to march. through the door a year ago in New York.
“I also think, honestly, that my opponents are playing a lot better this year,” Raducanu said. “I’m looking back at my matches from the US Open, and there are certain moments where I was given a lot or maybe they were a little tight. So I think I have improved as a player. I think I achieved something great, of course, but I was playing completely free and I’m starting to do it again.”
Reflecting on her past year, Raducanu did not shy away from discussing the challenges of her life-changing success, saying she no longer has time for herself.
“It’s not for him,” she said. “I’ve been really lucky and I’ve had a lot of great opportunities that come up but there’s definitely a certain trade-off when you don’t have any time to relax or be alone or do things that you want to do. do. You are always on guard. But it also comes with what I’ve done, what I’ve achieved and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Raducanu describes herself as a different person to the newcomer who came to the qualifying event a year ago and there are times when she has lost the vitality she carried herself in 2021. “There are moments in the year when I lost that person and I got very caught up in certain things. But I’m still young, at the end of the day. I’m 19, going on 20 at the end of the year. It’s going to happen,” she said.
However, her unpreparedness for the physical demands of high-level tennis and the constant adjustments she made to her opponents only further underscores the remarkable feat of achieving a grand slam so early in her development.
In the second grand slam tournament of her career, she was ranked 150th and during her first long trip away from home as a professional, she entered the qualifying rounds unsure of how to approach the tournament and walked away with the title.
“When you pull it back, what she achieved here last year was huge,” says Bates. “I really felt like I was walking back to Flushing a few days ago. Because so much has happened since then, you forget when the US Open was last year.
“You forget how big this event is. She qualified and won it when she was 18 years old. If you take that for what it is, that’s great.”