It will provide little immediate consolation to Emma Raducanu, but the improbable fantasy of her run to Wimbledon’s second week will survive in the British public’s imagination far longer than the sad nature of its ending. The dreams of the 18-year-old debutant, whose fearless conviction and irresistible smile had captivated the nation, were broken in despairing circumstances in the fourth round when she was abruptly forced to retire due to breathing difficulties in the second set of a brutal match against Alja Tomljanovic.
Even in defeat, Raducanu’s performance will be remembered for its courage in the face of such a relentless and unsparing opponent. The teenager, whose summer was supposed to be defined by A-Level results, was already the subject of history’s record books before stepping back out onto Court One and will remain the youngest British woman to reach the fourth round in the Open era once the dust settles on her exit. And ultimately, despite being forced to withdraw after 75 minutes, Raducanu will know that Tomljanovic’s immense power was slowly but unmistakably grinding her towards submission. After defying so many disadvantages just to reach this stage, there was no dishonour in that.
Raducanu had trailed by a set and a break when she left the court but was still fighting valiantly and nearly broke Tomljanovic’s serve in what was to be the final game. But the signs of a problem had been clear since her resistance was broken at the end of the first set, when she stood motionless at the baseline after another gruelling rally. Her hands sunk to her knees, her head bowed under the weight of exhaustion, and the air which had been so electric at the start of this slugging match became suffocating. At 3-0 in the second, the trainer was called as Raducanu clutched her stomach and the sickness stole from her spirit.
A short statement later confirmed the reason for Raducanu’s withdrawal, and she had seemed resigned to that fate when she buried her face in a towel before leaving the court. For now, that is the last the crowd will see of the wildcard who announced herself so spectacularly as the heir-apparent to Andy Murray’s throne. It will not be the image that lasts, though. Amid all the fanfare and expectation, it is easily forgotten that this was just Raducanu’s fifth main WTA Tour match in her entire career. Her remarkable run was destined to end. But the incredulity and joy she provided will not be extinguished.
“I am actually shocked because Emma must be hurt if she came to the decision to retire,” Tomljanovic, who will now face compatriot and world No 1 Ashley Barty in the quarter-finals, said afterwards. “I am really sorry for her, I wish we could have finished it. I am wishing her all the best. I thought I found my groove although Emma was hurt and not at her best which kind of explains it. It didn’t really sink in I’m in the quarters because of the circumstances. I am thrilled to play Ash, and to have two Aussies in the quarter-finals is great for everyone back home.”
In the hours before Raducanu stepped back out onto Court One, the sense of excitement at Wimbledon had already been strained to an extreme level, shrouding even the allure of Roger Federer’s fourth-round match. And, perhaps, it was only inevitable that nerves would finally slip from behind Raducanu’s smile under such an exacting spotlight. The silence between points was hair-raising, the closed roof amplifying the sound of every shot until it was broken by a raucous cheer or heaving sigh, and Wimbledon had never felt quite so alive this fortnight.
By outclassing world No 45 Sorana Cirstea, Raducanu had already overcome a hurdle that was, at least on paper, even greater than this. But quickly the imposing size of her task became clear as two double faults betrayed the pressure and the first of so many bludgeoning groundstrokes came bulleting back at her over the net.
What Raducanu had already proved in striking abundance last week, though, was that her nerves could be contained, even at the heart of such a bubbling cauldron. And as quickly as it had deserted her, she refound her serve to seal a momentous hold. The apprehension began to subside, the adrenaline took hold, and a cathartic roar ignited a match that quickly became a merciless war of attrition, with every point fought to its dying breath.
Tomljanovic is a fiery competitor and, although often one-dimensional and inconsistent, her aggressive ball-striking can be deadly even for the world’s best players. That proved the case for 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the previous round, who labelled the Australian “disrespectful” and the “worst player on tour” after Tomljanovic accused her of faking an injury. Duly, the world No 75 hurled herself into every forehand with the force of a heavyweight, but somehow Raducanu found the resolve to keep points alive, absorbing and deflecting the slugging shots. A stunning backhand to hold serve at 2-3 elicited an almighty cheer and Raducanu was finally able to deliver a punch of her own, roaring at the crowd with a clenched fist.
In spite of the intensity slowly draining her strength, with every hold of serve amounting to a titanic struggle, Raducanu refused to crack and, if only briefly, the teenager managed to knock her opponent back onto her heels as the crowd seized on the Australian’s every error. To Tomljanovic’s credit, though, she harnessed the hostile atmosphere with admirable control and it wasn’t much longer before she landed the telling blow. With Raducanu serving to stay in the set, a punishing rally at deuce crumbled her defence and Tomljanovic would never relinquish the ascendancy.
The end was sudden but perhaps not unexpected as Raducanu repeatedly stopped to take deep breaths. John McEnroe claimed the occasion had become “a bit too much for her”, but then what could possibly prepare any player of Raducanu’s age and inexperience for a match of this scale. Her breakthrough has been such a whirlwind, and it will take time to calm the storm, but there is certainly no shame in her falling short. For eight days, Raducanu enchanted us all with her preternatural talent and poise, and those qualities should guarantee that this chapter only marks the beginning of a long career.
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