An hour into Emma Raducanu’s startling third-round match at the US Open last year, she still, somehow, had not lost a single game. In the second grand slam event of her career, the 18-year-old had lined up against the eternally steady Sara Sorribes Tormo, a match-up that seemed destined to push Raducanu to her limits. Instead, the youngster tore her apart. Raducanu led 6-0, 5-0 with a match point on her opponent’s serve, then a game later, served out the win over her top 50-ranked opponent. With it, the idea of what she could really achieve in the following days began to shift.
“It was at that point I thought: ‘Whoa, hang on a minute,’” says Katie O’Brien, a former British No 1. “If you maintain this level she could be a real contender. I think we were all saying it a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m not quite sure there was any substance behind those words.”
Back then, even a mere fourth-round run seemed an unreal prospect. A few months earlier, Raducanu was inactive, her tennis on pause before her A-levels. Her breakthrough at Wimbledon was on home soil, a world away from the grind of the tour. The North American hard-court swing marked a first extended sally abroad and she had arrived in New York exhausted after a run to the final of a lower-level event in Chicago the previous Sunday. Simply getting out of the three qualifying rounds would have represented a successful tournament.
“I’m sure she was pretty happy just to have qualified last year,” says O’Brien. “Maybe there was more pressure, you could argue, in the first round of qualifying. She just wanted to win a couple of matches. And then, once she got into the main draw she was like: ‘Oh wow, I’m here now. Let’s just play.’”
Iain Bates, the LTA’s head of women’s tennis, was part of Raducanu’s team in New York and has frequently worked with her in the year since. He says: “I felt at the start, her coming from [the event in] Chicago, if she came from [qualifying] that would be at least a way of keeping momentum and showing where her level is that she can come through the qualifiers at a slam.”
Bates notes that Raducanu’s first practice actually took place on the unglamorous courts outside the tournament grounds in the adjacent park, which she was eventually kicked off by another player, forcing her to finish elsewhere. “It’s kind of ironic that the first practice was on P164 compared to where the tournament ended for her,” he says.
The small breaks all seemed to fall Raducanu’s way, the type of luck essential for any surprise slam run. She was given a late Wednesday start for her first qualifying round, an extra day to adjust after her travels. After qualifying, she was drawn against Jennifer Brady, the 13th seed and beaten Australian Open finalist. But Brady withdrew because of injury, leaving the British player with a first round against the lucky loser Stefanie Vögele, which she won dropping just five games. For two weeks, Raducanu squeezed the baseline, suffocating opponents with her return of serve, and moved seamlessly, constantly looking to flip defence into attack.
Perhaps most notably, the youngster did not face any opponent with the game to overpower her completely and she stepped forward as the aggressor in every match. “Every day, you kept thinking that she was going to win because her level was so good. You felt somebody to beat her was going have to be a real heavy striker, like a [Karolina] Pliskova. Someone who was going play heavy, aggressive tennis and almost take the racket out of her hand.”
“Pretty much no one knew her,” says Caroline Garcia, the champion in Cincinnati last week, smiling. “I think when you are young and you are coming up and no one knows you, it’s always positive points on your side, because you can analyse a lot your opponent’s game and know how it is played. But it’s pretty tricky most of the time to find video or good quality matches where they can watch how you are doing.”
Until the very end, Raducanu controlled her own destiny, attacking without hesitation, and she slammed down an ace out wide on championship point against Leylah Fernandez to finish her 10th match in a row, winning her first grand slam without dropping a set.
Even before she had finished celebrating with her team in their hotel that night, there were warnings about the challenges ahead. Raducanu has had to adjust simultaneously to her life transforming overnight both on and off the court. Every decision she made has been scrutinised. It has not been easy. One year on, she has compiled a negative win-loss record of 15-18 and consecutive wins have been limited. O’Brien says: “She missed not just one hoop [in her development], but probably 10 hoops in winning the US Open.”
Bates adds: “If you look at that in a normal trajectory and you said before the US Open last year that Emma is going be ranked 60, that she’s beaten this number of top 30, 50 and 100 players, you can look at that and say: ‘That’s a profile I’ll sign for.’ Everybody rightly looks at it through a different lens and I understand it because she’s become a superstar.”
As she reflected on the US Open to come after a successful week in Cincinnati, Raducanu said her one-sided wins over the former world No 1s Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka were the first time she felt any kind of similar freedom to the player who marched through the door a year ago in New York.
“I also think, honestly, that my opponents have been playing a lot better this year,” Raducanu said. “I’m rewatching my matches from the US Open, and there are certain moments where I was given a lot of gifts or maybe they got a bit tight. So I think I have improved actually as a player. I think that I achieved something great, of course, but I was playing completely free and I’m starting to do that again.”
As she reflected on her past year, Raducanu did not shy away from discussing the challenges of her life-changing success, stating that she no longer has time for herself.
“It doesn’t exist,” she said. “I am really, really fortunate and have a lot of amazing opportunities that come my way but for sure that comes with a certain trade-off where you don’t have any time to switch off or be alone or do things that you want to do. You’re constantly on guard. But it also comes with what I’ve done, what I’ve achieved and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Raducanu describes herself as a different person to the newcomer who arrived for the qualifying event one year ago and there have been times when she has lost the vitality she carried herself with in 2021. “There are moments in the year when I did lose that person and I got very caught up in certain things. But I’m still young, at the end of the day. I’m 19, going on 20 at the end of the year. It’s just going to happen,” she said.
Still, her unpreparedness for the physical demands of top-level tennis and her continued adjustments to her rivals only further underscores the astounding achievement of winning a grand slam so early into her development.
In the second grand slam tournament of her career, ranked 150th and during her first lengthy trip away from home as a professional, she arrived in the qualifying rounds unsure even of how to navigate the tournament grounds and she left with the title.
“When you strip it all back, what she achieved here last year was monumental,” says Bates. “I really felt that walking back into Flushing a couple of days ago. Because so much has happened since then, you forget the moment in time that last year’s US Open was.
“You forget how big an event this is. She qualified and won it at the age of 18. If you just take that for what it is, that is extraordinary.”