What Emma Raducanu accomplished last year at the US Open was neither rare nor exceptional, in the truest sense of the word. It was much more than that. It was (and still is) unique. In front of a crowd of 23,771 spectators at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis stadium in the world, she achieved what no other human being had done before her – winning a Grand Slam straight out of the qualifying rounds. And, what's more, without losing a single set during the 10 games of her epic record-breaking run, and all at 18, in only her second participation in a Major. A story somewhere between fairy-tale and science fiction, one that no author on earth, even the most creative under the influence of psychoactive substances, would have been able to dream up.
Eleven and a half months later, the Cinderella of the courts has seen all the enchantment surrounding her gradually ebb away. She has had to cling on to her carriage to withstand the bumps in the road and all those who would like to see it turn it into a pumpkin. First, she had to learn how to handle the sudden fame and the millions pouring in from an array of increasingly prestigious sponsors – enough to make your head spin until you could lose it, especially when so young. With the help of her entourage, however, she has managed to keep it firmly on her shoulders. At the end of 2021, she revealed that she was still being told off by her parents and continued to take public transport.
“I feel like the exact same person and go about everything I used to do,” she told former player Andrew Castle in an interview in the British media. “I don’t see why I should change things.” But on the court, her opponents stopped seeing her as who she was. She went from being a “mere hope” to being a “woman to beat”, just like the other stars of the WTA. “She’s got a target on her now,” explained Virginia Wade, the last British woman to win a singles Grand Slam – at Wimbledon in 1977 – before Raducanu’s surprise emergence. “There are an awful lot of very good players and they all desperately want to beat her.”
“I’m always learning” – Emma Raducanu
“We don't need to expect anything spectacular in the next few years,” added Wade in an interview with the Radio Times in October. “Give her a couple of good, steady learning years.” The winner of the 1968 US Open and 1971 Australian Open could be a fortune teller. So far, her crystal ball has proved correct. Since her American dream, Raducanu – born in Toronto to a Chinese mother and a Romanian father, before growing up in the UK – has struggled, notching up 15 wins and 18 losses on the main circuit and never more than two successes at any one tournament. In addition to the pressure that comes with her new status, she has evidently not yet managed to find her feet in the WTA.
Before her victory at Flushing Meadows, she had only competed in three main circuit competitions: Nottingham, Wimbledon and Sans Jose in 2021. January 2022 saw her start her first full season at this level. “I’m still learning, almost every tournament is a new experience for me,” she has repeated at numerous press conferences. “I'm still trying to figure out how it all works,” she explained in Indian Wells in March. “Everything is still very new for me, it’s going to take me time to adjust. I accept the fact that it won’t be a long, calm river, that there will be some eddies – that’s how it is.”
Since her coronation in New York, “Queen Emma” and her entourage have been through a dizzying series of coaches. Having emerged in a round of 16 at Wimbledon last year, she went on to part ways with Nigel Sears (April 2021-July 2021), before exploding into the global headlines with Andrew Richardson (July 2021-September 2021). Despite this success, she then chose Torben Beltz (December 2021-April 2022) before working, pending a full-time coach, with two temporary guides: LTA coach Louis Cayer (April 2022-June 2022), then Jane O’Donoghue (Wimbledon 2022) who had previously been her mentor during her early teenage years.
“I have grown as a player” – Emma Raducanu
Constant changes, seen from the outside as a sign of instability, attracted much criticism, which she responded to, before starting the WTA 250 in Nottingham in early June, by saying: “Personally, I think I know what I’m doing. I’m trusting what I’m doing and the work I’m doing. I’m still 19 and I’ve already won a Grand Slam so I can take my time and put things in place because I know my motivation isn’t any less. I still train as much. Even if I sort of had this revolutionary training, I don't need to share it because that's my business and why would I tell my opponent how I’m training?”
At the end of July, she announced her new mentor: Dmitry Tursunov, known for helping Aryna Sabalenka (July 2018-December 2019, then February 2020-August 2020) into the Top 10, before working with Anett Kontaveit (August 2021-June 2022), current world number 2, for the most illustrious period of her career. This new partnership, being trialled during the North American tour, could be extended if it achieves decisive results. And in terms of her game, Raducanu has already proved enthusiastic. After a quarter-final in Washington and a first round in Toronto, she distinguished herself in Cincinnati. Although stopped 7/5 6/4 in the third round by seventh-ranked Jessica Pegula, she previously overcame Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, beaten 6/4 6/0 and 6/0 6/2 respectively.
“In the past year I think it's probably the first tournament or one of the few tournaments that I have actually started going for my shots,” she confided after the loss against Pegula. I think that recently I was kind of playing and hoping they would miss, and I think I was pushing the ball around a lot more. I’m pretty proud of how I did this week and I think it’s a great step to move forward. (…) I am re-watching my US Open (2021) matches. I think I have actually improved as a player. I was just playing completely free and I am starting to do that again.” A sound decision when following a path with zero visibility and which no-one else has taken before her, as she emphasised in Indian Wells: “I'm in a completely new scenario and I'm trying to learn as I go along.” This is a reminder that it is difficult to learn without losing, although many people think she should already be winning practically every match in order to confirm her status.
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