As Emma Raducanu continues to navigate the tangly pressures of expectation and progress at the Australian Open, she will come face to face with an opponent in Coco Gauff who can relate to her experiences on a level that few can reach. Given their tennis breakthroughs have followed similar trajectories, it is an astonishing boost to the Australian Open that it gets to stage the first ever meeting between Raducanu and Gauff - two of the sport’s most prominent names, let alone teenage stars - on what is only the third day of competition on Wednesday.
They burst onto the scene at Wimbledon at the same stage but two years apart; Gauff with her run to the fourth round as a 15-year-old in 2019, Raducanu to the same point aged 18 in 2021, and then more significantly as she won the US Open as a wildcard two months later. Their worlds changed overnight, and in a way that only a few players on the tour can truly understand. Raducanu and Gauff were held up as future multiple-time grand slam champions, endorsements followed, and the demands to repeat their initial success were not always met with perspective.
That will not stop the size of the build-up ahead of their first meeting, but the Australian Open will not be alone in celebrating what has turned out to be a prize contest among the draw. Tennis is a sport that is enhanced by rivalries but faces a lack of them in the world that will be left behind without Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Gauff and Raducanu, two top talents pitting the United States against the United Kingdom, has the potential to be a seismic pull in the years to come if there are further clashes at this level, particularly in the latter stages of tournaments.
But that they meet for the first time now, in the second round of a grand slam, is indicative of Raducanu and Gauff’s respective journeys to this point. There are the similarities they have shared but there are important differences too, which mark apart two players who became the centre of attention at a grand slam while the world was still learning their names.
The key difference, perhaps, is their rate of progress following on from their sudden arrivals. A beaten finalist in the French Open last season, Gauff is targeting her first grand slam title in 2023, but she has built towards it gradually and in a more natural way than Raducanu. The Briton has already taken that leap by winning the US Open, but by doing so missed a step. For Raducanu, steady progress is still the goal to maintain her overall development, but the fact she is already a grand slam champion skews the perspective of her situation.
Despite the gap in major titles, Raducanu and Gauff have not been at the same level over the past 12 months. Raducanu is unseeded in Australia, her ranking falling to 77th in the world after her first-round exit at the US Open last year. Gauff, meanwhile, is seventh. It was perhaps emphasised that as Gauff opened play on the opening day of the Australian Open on the Rod Laver Arena, Raducanu was on the smaller 1573 Arena, which sits tucked away in the shadows of the larger show courts.
For that, Gauff’s journey can offer context. It took the American five more grand slam appearances to progress past the fourth round she reached on her breakthrough at Wimbledon. In Melbourne, Raducanu is making her fifth grand slam appearance since the US Open, but with a much higher bar and a far larger target on her back. Gauff was keen to point out that Raducanu was also under more pressure due to becoming the first British woman in 44 years to win a grand slam title. By contrast, Gauff winning a major now, even at 18, would barely scratch the surface left behind by Serena and Venus Williams.
“Obviously she’s gone through a lot of pressure, bursting onto the scene,” Gauff said. “I feel like probably more than I have experienced coming to win a slam. There’s definitely a difference coming in to win a slam and the fourth round. Obviously I was a lot younger when I got the attention, so I definitely think handling it at an older age is a little bit easier than at 15. But also, at the same time, I didn’t win a slam. I’m not British, and wasn’t the first British woman to do what she did.”
Raducanu dismissed suggestions that she could learn from Gauff’s smoother ride to the top 10 of the world. “I think I can learn from everyone,” she said. “It’s not just the top players that you see in the rankings that you can learn from. There are players ranked 150 in the world taking care of what they need to take care of in the gym and the locker room. I think that often gets quite overlooked and you don’t see it.
“She’s someone who’s also achieved great things and is a good role model, but so is pretty much everyone out there.” So, too, is Raducanu and the fearless approach from the baseline that led to her US Open triumph. Gauff, who is also a top-ranked doubles player, has better hands and variety at the net but is an admirer of Raducanu’s aggressive style. “I’m just going to have to be ready and accept some return winners might come my way.”
There is excitement and anticipation at the sense of the unknown, as there is whenever two established players cross ways for the first time. No matter how many times Raducanu and Gauff meet from here, you can never replace that first encounter, and it could be a match that is looked back upon in future generations. That would be getting ahead of things, but the potential remains, as Raducanu and Gauff take the next step on journeys that seem to compare and contrast in equal measure.