Emma Raducanu, youthful freedom and US Open glory

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An hour after Emma Raducanu’s surprise third-round match at last year’s US Open, she somehow still hadn’t lost a single game. In the second Grand Slam tournament of her career, the 18-year-old faced the ever-consistent Sara Sorribes Tormo, a duel that seemed to push Raducanu to the limit. Instead, the boy tore them apart. Raducanu led 6-0, 5-0 with a match point on her opponent’s serve, then served up the win over her top-50 opponent a game later. With that, the notion of what she could really accomplish in the days that followed began to shift.

“At that point I was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute,'” says Katie O’Brien, a former British No.1. “If you keep that level, she could be a real contender. I think we all said that with a little tongue in cheek. I’m not entirely sure there was any substance behind those words.”

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Back then, even a mere run in the fourth lap seemed an unrealistic prospect. A few months earlier, Raducanu was inactive, her tennis paused before her high school graduation. Her breakthrough at Wimbledon came on home soil, worlds away from the Tour routine. North American hard-court swing marked a first extended outage abroad, and she had arrived in New York exhausted after running into the final of a lower-level tournament in Chicago last Sunday. Elimination from the three qualifying rounds alone would have been a successful tournament.

“I’m sure she was pretty lucky to have qualified last year,” says O’Brien. “Perhaps there was more pressure in the first qualifying round, one could argue. She just wanted to win a few games. And then when she got into the peloton she said, ‘Oh wow, I’m here now. Let’s just play.’”

Iain Bates, the head of women’s tennis at the LTA, was part of Raducanu’s team in New York and has worked with her frequently since. He says: “I felt it coming at first [the event in] Chicago when she came from [qualifying] That would at least be a way to keep the momentum going and show where her level is that she can get past qualifying with a slam.”

Serena Williams is set to play doubles with her sister Venus at the US Open after the pair were handed a wildcard.

The tournament is set to be Serena’s last and she has not competed in a Grand Slam championship with her sister since the French Open four years ago.

Meanwhile, two-time US Open champion Naomi Osaka says she is struggling with her mental health on the eve of the tournament. Osaka has only won one game since April, and she admitted: “I feel like I lied about a day ago and said I’m really relaxed. But actually, when I practiced today, I felt very anxious. I think it’s because I really want to do well because I feel like I’ve been not doing well lately.

Bates notes that Raducanu’s first practice session actually took place on the lackluster courts outside of the tournament grounds in the adjacent park, from which she was eventually kicked by another player, forcing her to finish elsewhere. “It’s kind of ironic that the first practice session was 164th compared to where the tournament ended for them,” he says.

The small breaks all seemed to fall Raducanu’s way, the kind of luck essential to any surprise Slam run. She was given a late Wednesday start for her first round of qualifying, an extra day to adjust after her travels. After qualifying, she was drawn against Jennifer Brady, the 13th seeded and beaten Australian Open finalist. But Brady pulled out through injury, leaving the Britain player with a first round win over lucky loser Stefanie Vögele, which she won by just five games. For two weeks, Raducanu pressed the baseline, smothering opponents with her return of serve and moving seamlessly, constantly looking to convert defense to offense.

Emma Raducanu's run to US Open glory was backed because

Emma Raducanu’s run to US Open glory was helped because “virtually nobody knew her,” said Caroline Garcia. Photo: Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports

Perhaps most notably, the youngster never faced an opponent who totally overwhelmed her with the game, and she appeared as an attacker in every match. “Every day you thought she would win because her level was so good. You felt that someone who beats them has to be a really strong striker, like a [Karolina] Pliskova. Someone who would play heavy, aggressive tennis and almost grab the racquet out of her hands.”

“Hardly anyone knew her,” says Caroline Garcia, last week’s Cincinnati champion, with a smile. “I think when you’re young and you get up and nobody knows you, you always have positive points on your side because you can analyze your opponent’s game a lot and you know how it’s played. But it’s usually quite difficult to find good quality videos or matches where they can see how you’re doing.”

Raducanu controlled her own destiny until the very end, attacking without hesitation and hitting an ace well past the championship point against Leylah Fernandez to close her 10th straight match and win her first Grand Slam without dropping a set.

Even before she celebrated with her team at her hotel that evening, there were warnings of the challenges ahead. At the same time, Raducanu had to adjust to the fact that her life changed overnight on and off the pitch. Every decision she made was questioned. It was’nt easy. A year later she has a negative win-loss record of 15-18 and back-to-back wins have been limited. O’Brien says: “She didn’t just miss a hoop [in her development]but probably 10 hoops to win the US Open.

Adds Bates: “If you look at that in a normal trajectory and before the US Open last year said Emma will be 60th, she beat that number of top 30, 50 and 100 players , you can look at that and say, ‘This is a profile I’m going to sign for.’ Everyone rightly sees it through a different lens and I get it because she’s become a superstar.”

Emma Raducanu defeated Serena Williams 6-4, 6-0 in Cincinnati.

Emma Raducanu defeated Serena Williams 6-4, 6-0 in Cincinnati. Photo: Susan Mullane/USA Today Sports

Reflecting on the upcoming US Open after a successful week in Cincinnati, Raducanu said her one-sided wins over former world No. 1 Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka were the first time she felt a similar freedom to the marching player through the door a year ago in New York.

“To be honest, I also think that my opponents played much better this year,” said Raducanu. “I’m rewatching my matches from the US Open and there are certain moments where I got a lot of gifts or maybe things got a little tight. So I think I’ve actually improved as a player. I think that of course I’ve achieved something great, but I’ve been playing completely freely and I’m starting again.”

Reflecting on her past year, Raducanu didn’t shy away from discussing the challenges of her life-changing success, stating that she no longer has time for herself.

“It doesn’t exist,” she said. “I’m really, really lucky and have a lot of amazing opportunities coming my way, but that sure comes with a certain trade-off where you don’t have time to switch off or be alone or do things that you want to do . You’re always on guard. But it also depends on 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 arrived for the qualifying event a year ago and there have been times when she’s lost the vitality she carried herself with in 2021. “There are moments in the year when I’ve lost that person and I’ve been very caught up in certain things. But I’m still young, at the end of the day. I’m 19 and will be 20 at the end of the year. It’s just going to happen,” she said.

However, her unpreparedness for the physical demands of top-level tennis and her constant adjustments to her rivals only further underscore the amazing achievement of having won a Grand Slam so early in her development.

At the second Grand Slam tournament of her career, ranked 150th and during her first long journey away from home as a pro, she arrived in the qualifying rounds unsure of how to navigate the tournament grounds and walked with the title.

“If you take it all back, what she accomplished here last year was monumental,” says Bates. “I really felt that when I returned to Flushing a few days ago. Because so much has happened since then, you forget when the US Open was last year.

“You forget what a big event this is. She qualified and won it at the age of 18. If you just take it for what it is, that’s extraordinary.”

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