Any defending champion crashing out in the opening round of a Grand Slam should feel like a shock, and yet Emma Raducanu’s early exit a year on from her stunning US Open triumph did not feel all that seismic.
Preparations had been far from perfect. There had been the positives of the win over Serena Williams at her last warm-up event in Cincinnati, but clearly things were not quite right in New York.
She was pictured on court on Friday during a practice session in tears and requiring treatment to her wrist. While she downplayed the importance of either the treatment or the tears, it hardly gave off the message of a player brimming with confidence — physically or mentally — about her chances going into the final Grand Slam of the year.
In addition to her own potential frailties was the player on the other side of the net in the opening round, Alize Cornet. There are few more mercurial talents in the game than the Frenchwoman, who has been enjoying one of the best seasons of her career at the age of 32.
In the Grand Slams alone in 2022 she has beaten four former Major champions in Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko and Iga Swiatek.
In Pictures | US Open 2022
Beating Swiatek at Wimbledon was perhaps the most impressive, ending the Pole’s streak of invincibility which, at the time, had stretched to 37 straight wins. No wonder Cornet described herself as the “upset girl” and talked beforehand — as well as performed — like a player fully expecting to defeat Raducanu.
But what does defeat now mean for the 19-year-old Briton? Well, in terms of the rankings, she will now tumble to something like world No80, although exactly where remains to be seen until the US Open fortnight is over. In all likelihood, she will lose her British No1 status to Harriet Dart, who faces Hungary’s Dalma Galfi in the second round today.
To go from No11 seed in New York to the 80s might seem like a fall from grace but, in truth, it is a more accurate reflection of her current level in the women’s game, the brilliance from Flushing Meadows 12 months ago aside.
There will always be an element of expectation and pressure as a Grand Slam champion, but that will diminish markedly with the change in ranking status. And, in the ensuing weeks, invariably she will not step on to court with quite the same target on her back, something she had spoken about repeatedly in the past weeks and months.
A little more outside of the spotlight, there is a new chance to rebuild. Jack Draper is a sensible option to follow.
Tellingly, she and Draper were featured in a BBC segment labelled as the next big things in British tennis before her run to the fourth round at Wimbledon last year. At the time, Draper was seen as the more likely to break through first.
Now the Londoner has gone from outside the world’s top 250 at the start of the year to inside the top 60 — and rising rapidly. While there have been some impressive results along the way, that climb has been largely outside of the limelight.
Raducanu will not be gifted quite the same opportunity away from the spotlight, but the glare will infinitely soften as she bids to regroup.
She has the game, the athleticism, hard work and the brain to get to the very top of the sport, and the time in which to do it.
Despite her positive outlook on her first year on tour, it has been a chastening experience at times. Post-season she needs a solid winter training block, an opportunity that was partly denied her by contracting Covid towards the end of last year and then struggling to get back to full fitness in time for the Australian Open. Ever since then, it has always seemed like a struggle to get consistently fit.
And the other target is to recapture the freedom and belief in her game, and the almost carefree attitude that saw her delight New York a year ago and pull off one of sport’s great underdog stories. Losing this time oddly feels like it could amount to a fresh start.