On her third match point, as Sorana Cirstea remonstrated with the umpire, Emma Raducanu bounced on the baseline as though she were shadowboxing, visualising the most important shot of her career, only for the crowd on Court One to erupt into a standing ovation. Without hesitation, the 18-year-old British wildcard broke into a huge grin and did a small pirouette, soaking in all four corners of the arena. Just a few moments later, the rising star of British tennis exploded into one last firework of a forehand and completed a 6-3, 7-5 victory that will shine a light long into Wimbledon’s night.
In stunning French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova in the second round, Raducanu had already defied all logic and even the lofty predictions of her own coach, who claimed the “sky is the limit” for the teenager this week. But as the crowd hailed a new hero, those heights felt in unmistakably close reach as Raducanu became the youngest British woman to reach Wimbledon’s second week since 1959.
Andy Murray only reached the third round at 18 years old and, after he questioned his resolve to continue in defeat last night, this irrepressible display was delivered with a sense of destiny. Raducanu may still be waiting on the results of her A-levels, but she handled the spotlight with aplomb, coupled the frenzy with a sense of sheer fun, and produced an exhibition of breathtaking tennis for which Cirstea simply had no answer.
Much will be made of the prize money she has earned, but this should be remembered as a match that punctuated history and, perhaps, marked a new era for British tennis. Ranked No 45 in the world, Cirstea had defeated two-time grand slam champion Victoria Azarenka in the previous round and boasts an aggressive game that strips opponents of any sense of security, forcing them to toil over every point.
It was the type of examination for which Raducanu could never be prepared. Amid all the fanfare, it is easy to forget that she had played just one main event on the WTA Tour prior to this week and lost in the first round. But armed with a near-faultless technique and extraordinary sense of maturity, there was not a hint of fluster as she walked out in front of 7,400 fans on Court One. As if on cue, the rain paused overhead, the clouds parted with reverence and Raducanu beamed with the first of many freewheeling smiles.
Thrust into such an unforgiving spotlight, the fearlessness of youth trounced any niggling doubts and, for whatever Raducanu lacks in experience, she compensated with power and unfazed aggression, the adrenaline seeping into a series of flat backhands in the opening game that rocked Cirstea onto her heels. Not content to feel her way into the match, Raducanu then thrashed at Cirstea’s weak second serve, shredding a forehand like a guillotine through felt. And although Cirstea managed to hold, a tide of momentum was already crashing overhead, and it would not break until the Briton dropped her racquet in celebration.
If there were a few flickering nerves, they only emerged in Raducanu’s second service game, when a double fault brought the first test of pressure and a leaden sigh. She answered the call emphatically with an ace, but soon afterwards a punching backhand ensured Cirstea of first blood in the match. But while the reality of her task was now clear, Raducanu did not lick her wounds or sink an inch into her shell. Drawing on all her dynamism, she scampered across the baseline and skewed a brilliant backhand down the line to immediately put the match back on serve.
From there on, the first set seemed to bend to her every will. Whenever a point felt lost, Raducanu conjured returns from nowhere, contorting her body into the grass, refusing to give up on every dying breath as she broke Cirstea’s resistance. All smiles on the surface, there is clearly a fierce and relentless competitive drive that is the foundation of Rudacanu’s power-hitting and, after driving a passing shot straight at her opponent, a raised racquet in apology did little to conceal her satisfaction. Any murmurings of stage fright long silenced, she closed out the set with a magnificent backhand lob that required all her agility and promptly elicited another raucous cheer.
For a while, Raducanu even threatened to reduce the match to a procession in the second set, racing into a 3-0 lead with a fourth consecutive break of Cirstea’s serve. But when another double fault wrecked the premature celebrations and offered Cirstea a route back into the match, Raducanu showed no signs of frustration, her error instead igniting an even greater fire that had energy and enthusiasm to burn in equal measure.
A titanic 15-minute game at 5-4 swayed back and forth and was marked by a standalone highlight reel of Raducanu’s blistering groundstrokes, yet still the final breakthrough wouldn’t come. But when a searing forehand passing shot was followed by an emphatic drive volley at 6-5, Cirstea succumbed in the face of an unstoppable force. Once the final blitz landed, Raducanu fell to the turf in delight, but not disbelief. The 18-year-old may be a star of the future, and for Britain perhaps even the ages, but she is taking the present in her stride.
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