Emma Raducanu edges Sloane Stephens in topsy-turvy Australian Open first round

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Emma Raducanu is clearly a player for the big occasion.

Having won a solitary game in her sole warm-up match for the Australian Open, expectations had understandably diminished over her tournament chances.

But in only the third Grand Slam of her career, she recovered from a second-set wobble to defeat another former US Open champion in Sloane Stephens 6-0 2-6 6-1.

The Grand Slams aside, the 19-year-old Raducanu has not won more than two matches at a main WTA Tour event, and there had been question marks over how she might fare in her first year full-time on the tour.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

But she continued her remarkable run at the Slams having reached the fourth round of Wimbledon and famously taken home the US Open title, with an impressive debut in Melbourne.

Guided by new coach Torben Beltz, who has himself enjoyed past Australian Open success with former charge Angelique Kerber, Raducanu made Stephens look second rate after a slow start.

And it proved a humbling end to the American’s honeymoon experience, fresh off the back of marrying former Hull and Sunderland striker Jozy Altidore.

The hype around Raducanu has understandably been huge following her New York fairytale. She was among the players on the official tournament posters and was met with rapturous applause as she came onto the Margaret Court Arena.

It could not have been more contrasting to her match against Elena Rybakina last week in which she lost 6-0 6-1 as the Briton needed only 17 minutes to win the opening set and dropped just one point on serve.

In contrast, the opening game of the second set lasted 12 minutes as Stephens won double the points she had claimed in the entire first set and finally found a way through, converting her fifth break point of the game as Raducanu produced back-to-back double faults.

It proved only a momentary rebirth for Stephens as Raducanu got three break-back points in game four and converted at the third time of asking as Stephens, who had worked so hard to get back into the match, hit a volley way out of court.

 (AP)
(AP)

But Stephens dominated the remainder of a 49-minute set to force a decider, after which both players went off for a toilet break.

Following that break, Raducanu returned the more fired-up while a sluggish Stephens gifted her opponent the break in her first service game of the set as she sent a forehand well wide. The Briton then raced to a 5-0 lead with a second break to edge her towards the second round.

Afterwards, Raducanu said: “I thought it was a really high quality match… and it’s great to come through against a great champion like her. I think it was a tough match-up for a first round. I knew there would be some long rallies and her athleticism is right up there. I’m so happy to have got through.”

The manner of the result will only add to the fanfare around the No17 seed, for whom taking on the world No3 seed seemed an arduous prospect for an opening-round match.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And her build-up had been far from perfect, the near Sydney whitewash to Rybakina having been preceded by a period of pre-Christmas isolation after testing positive for Covid-19 while at an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi.

In her first Grand Slam appearance since New York and on her Australian Open debut, she didn’t come onto court until past 10pm local time, the match finishing five minutes before the stroke of midnight.

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