Even now, 12 months later, the improbability and sheer audacity of it all still manages to astound. An 18-year-old from Bromley named Emma Raducanu, ranked 150th in the world and starting her second grand slam tournament in the first round of qualifying, arrived at the US Open and proceeded to win the whole thing. It was done with poise and style, without dropping a set and ending a 44-year wait for a British women’s singles winner at a grand slam, but above all was the sense of joy that surrounded the collective wonder at the achievement. It was a sporting fairytale, written in New York.
Back then, the energy Raducanu emitted across those two weeks last September felt infectious. Here was a player who took to the biggest tennis stadium in the world, faced the toughest tests of her career and attacked her opponents with freedom and belief – almost in defiance of the increasing levels of pressure and expectation that grew with her stunning run. Throughout it all, Raducanu approached matches with the feeling that she could not lose. It was the free swing that turned into the home run. It was the most brilliant and unexpected of stories.
It was perhaps naive to think it would last. Raducanu now returns to the US Open but does so having admitted, quite starkly, that she would like her year as defending champion to be over. Between the lines is a longing to rewind, and a desire to arrive back in New York as the teenager who had not booked her hotel room beyond qualifying, who felt no sense of trepidation at the idea of her journey coming to an end earlier than expected. Now, the expectation and definition of what would be considered a successful, or rather unsuccessful, tournament have shifted beyond the scale.
Naturally, it is a good time to reflect on what has been Raducanu’s first season on tour, which has presented plenty of tough moments and difficult lessons. The defence of her US Open title will be the final challenge of the past 12 months but when discussing it, Raducanu has suggested she is looking forward to a fresh start, a clean slate, where the weight of being the reigning US Open champion will not hang quite so heavily.
Put simply, defending grand slam champions do not lose their opening match of the tournament. Raducanu is not any defending grand champion but here, she has been handed an awkward and difficult draw against the experienced Alize Cornet, who ended Iga Swiatek’s 37-match winning streak at Wimbledon in July. It’s as tough a start as she could have realistically been given. To detractors and critics, the contrast of an early exit could not give a clearer illustration of her previous 12 months, of the fitness concerns, the uncertainty over her coaching set-up, the questions surrounding her sponsorship deals. By now, Raducanu knows how quickly all that noise can resurface.
Maybe when Raducanu spoke of wanting to “start again” after the US Open, it was with a situation like this in mind. Although her season has not progressed as expected, she knows each of her lows have been met with comment and judgement and with little consideration of her relative inexperience on the WTA Tour, perspective of which has been lost behind the size of her victory at the US Open. Her debut year has been defined by injuries, puncturing any hope of momentum ahead of any of the previous grand slams. In 18 tournaments since the US Open, her semi-final victory over Maria Sakkari at Flushing Meadows remains the only semi-final appearance of her professional career.
It is not the form of a player who starts the US Open as the tournament’s 11th seed, but a clearer picture may soon be established. If Raducanu is indeed looking forward to a clean slate after the US Open, depending on her progress this week the loss of the 2,000 ranking points she won by beating Leylah Fernandez in last September’s final is set to see her position plummet in the world’s top 100. No one can take what Raducanu achieved in New York away from her, but that reality would be more reflective of where she is at this stage of her development.
That is not to say something special can’t happen again. It would be a surprise to see Raducanu go deep in the US Open, just as it would to see any player who has not won more than three matches in a row all season conjure that consistency and form at a grand slam, but there have been flashes of form in recent weeks since returning to the hard courts.
Raducanu’s crushing victories over Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in Cincinnati this month were reminiscent of her fearless approach on her last appearance at Flushing Meadows. Martina Navratilova said it was the best Raducanu had played since. Even after losing in the quarter-finals to the top-ranked American Jessica Pegula, Raducanu hailed the tournament as a “great step” on the whole.
To some who still hold images of Raducanu staring down serves on Arthur Ashe and hitting clean winners, tearing through the tournament and ripping up history while doing so, the idea of the British No 1 embarking on the defence of her sensational title while admitting she would prefer for it to be over already may come across as a little dispiriting. But it may also be just what she needs.
Raducanu may have been looking back in envy at how she was able to approach the US Open so freely last year without all of the surrounding noise, but she was predominantly looking forwards with the hope of capturing it again. After shooting to the top 12 months ago the focus now is on gradual progression, but maybe what Raducanu requires above all is the environment where losing comes without feelings of doubt and fears of consequence. Maybe, as Raducanu suggested, a fresh start and a step back is what is needed to take another stride forwards. This US Open might come and go before there is the chance to see it again, but the reality is there will be plenty more to come.