A year into her apprenticeship as a newcomer at the top of her sport, every new week of competition brings new reminders of Emma Raducanu’s precociousness. Just two weeks ago, she played her first ever professional doubles match. She had never faced a multiple grand slam champion until this week when she demolished two in a row. On Thursday evening, finally, she stepped out onto the court against a top 10 opponent for just the second time of her life.
Standing before Raducanu was Jessica Pegula, one of the most improved players in recent years, and on a cool night in Mason, Ohio the American showed what it takes to beat a top player as she ended Raducanu’s bright run at the Western and Southern Open in the third round. In an intense battle that demanded first-strike tennis, Pegula’s greater firepower and consistency won out as she defeated Raducanu 7-5, 6-4.
After inflicting a painful 6-4, 6-0 defeat on Serena Williams on Tuesday and then returning the next afternoon to snuff out Victoria Azarenka 6-0, 6-2 – two hall of fame champions dismantled in two matches – a new challenge awaited Raducanu on Thursday. While Pegula has none of the achievements nor the reputation of Raducanu’s prior opponents, what she has is form. A late bloomer who has established herself inside the top 10 at the age of 28 after spending the majority of her career outside of the top 100, she is playing the best tennis of her life.
Pegula is a clean, flat ball striker with a particularly searing forehand and those strengths have propelled her to seventh in the rankings and No 3 in the yearly WTA race. Her rise has been underscored by excellent consistency and she arrived in Cincinnati having reached the semi-final in Montreal last week. She always shows up.
On centre stage for her first big match on home soil as the highest ranked tennis player in the country, Pegula began the encounter determined to immediately take control, stepping inside the baseline and laying into forehands. Raducanu initially responded well, suffocating Pegula’s weak second serves and trying to take the initiative herself.
But as the first set wore on, Pegula’s greater raw power and security off both wings contrasted with Raducanu’s relatively inconsistent forehand, which leaked errors on crucial points as she was forced to take bigger risks. Pegula breezed through her own service games while putting continuous pressure on Raducanu, and eventually she sealed the decisive break with a winning deep, overwhelming forehand return.
So many of Raducanu’s notable victories have been driven by startling, one-sided victories and she has had an unusually low number of high quality encounters against top players. This was one such match. Raducanu played fairly well herself, but she could not match Pegula’s quality and even level. After dropping the opening set, Raducanu double faulted on break point in set two for 2-1. Pegula offered her no chance of a reprieve, lasering forehands and easing through her service games as she closed off the straight sets win.
With her defeat in Cincinnati, the challenge of defending her US Open title is now upon Raducanu – the grand slam is just 10 days away. It seems like a far less daunting task. After an extremely positive tournament in which she defeated two big names before being outplayed by a highly ranked player in full flow, she will arrive there with a dramatically more positive outlook. Another valuable experience that will only help her in the weeks to come.