As her first match of the season fizzled towards its unsatisfactory conclusion, Emma Raducanu puffed out her cheeks and breathed a long sigh of relief. It had taken less than an hour to shatter any illusions over the rigours of the year ahead, but after nine games without an answer to Elena Rybakina’s destructive power-hitting, Raducanu could at least muster a smile as she spared herself the indignity of a whitewash.
It can seem so contradictory, after the impossible heights Raducanu conquered in New York, to imagine reaping any sort of joy from such a faint consolation just four months later in Sydney. “I simply wasn’t going to lose love and love,” she said afterwards. “So that was my motivation.” But the manner in which she defied expectations and broke records at the US Open inevitably set parameters that would be impossible to live up to – at least for the immediate future.
Add to that a relentless spotlight, the tumult of her changing coaching set-up, and a positive Covid test, which meant Raducanu had only just returned to practice after three weeks off court, and it’s clear that the 19-year-old’s first priority remains to find a balance on the hamster wheel that is life on the WTA Tour. After all, the reason Raducanu’s victory at Flushing Meadows resonated not just throughout Britain but so widely across the sporting world was because of how difficult it would be for anyone – including her – to replicate.
And so, after Novak Djokovic’s all-engulfing visa saga offered a welcome reprieve from the public glare, Raducanu will emerge under a light a little different to what might have been expected. Yes, she is now ranked at No 18 in the world, but three losses from her only five matches since the US Open have tempered expectations for the fortnight. The clear weakness in Raducanu’s second serve, which was punished so unsparingly by Rybakina, who won 87 per cent of those points in the opening set, is now a chink that will be targeted by all her opponents. Then, there is still the somewhat astonishing fact that Raducanu has never actually faced a player ranked inside the world’s top 10. In New York, the path cleared fortuitously, with the main seeds falling to surprise upsets, even if that by no means caveats Raducanu’s accomplishment. In all likelihood, though, history is unlikely to repeat itself. Naomi Osaka is back, Ashleigh Barty is on home turf, Aryna Sabalenka is grunting after a maiden slam that is starting to feel overdue. Raducanu might have already scaled the mountain, but those players still feel like forbidding giants in front of her.
What is a realistic goal – if such a thing can even be applied anymore? Raducanu’s opening match, against America’s Sloane Stephens, is an unforgiving test in which victory alone would qualify as a considerable marker. It’s a daunting task that raises some intriguing parallels too. Few had expected an unseeded Stephens to clinch glory at the US Open in 2017 and, amid the swirl of attention and unwanted comparisons to Serena Williams, she failed to win a single match for the remainder of the season. By the time she was knocked out in the first round at the Australian Open the following year, her losing streak had extended to eight matches. “Just relax, everybody. It’ll be OK, don’t worry,” she said with a smile and a laugh to a roomful of solemn reporters afterwards. Sure enough, at the French Open a few months later, she reached the final.
That should serve as a poignant reminder when considering the pressure on Raducanu. Stephens was already 24 when she took centre stage in New York, having been thrust into her first match on the WTA Tour almost a decade earlier. Raducanu’s breakthrough has been so sudden – to an almost incomparable degree in the Open era – that it’s only inevitable that periods of inconsistency will follow. From a physical standpoint, at just 19 years old, it will be far longer until Raducanu can stand toe-to-toe with players in their prime.
So, while there is a natural urgency to put her talent into some sort of context, the truth for the time being is that doesn’t really exist. In spite of what she’s already achieved, this is still a learning phase, where immediate results aren’t so much about success or failure as gleaning knowledge and experience. If Raducanu comes unstuck in the first round, it should not be a cause for hysterical conclusions about being a flash in the pan or unfocussed by commercial engagements. The quality that underlined her emergence as an unknown student quantity at Wimbledon and then stretched it beyond imagination in New York was the sheer sense of unbelievable fun it contained. Above all else, as pressure mounts and expectations rise, you hope that can still be preserved.
This Australian Open should be no different. It is the first time Raducanu will have competed in the “happy slam” – at least as it was known prior to this year’s drama. Raducanu might have long surpassed anybody’s expectations, but there is still plenty of time to stop and savour these novel milestones. After all, when she has done that before, it’s conjured a fearless brand of tennis that’s proved worthy of the very best.
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