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The nervous excitement that engulfed Wimbledon for Emma Raducanu’s fourth-round match last year made Court No 1 feel like a cramped elevator. A five-set marathon in the men’s draw meant it wasn’t until 8pm that the 18-year-old, who’d captivated the nation’s imagination, finally stepped out onto court. The noise was percussive, crashing off the closed roof and reverberating throughout a small crowd yearning to witness a moment in history.
It feels almost insignificant compared to what she’s achieved since, but Raducanu’s remarkable run back then could have defied the most conniving fortune teller. She had played her first WTA match just a few weeks earlier, losing in the first round in Nottingham against compatriot Harriet Dart. There had been hesitation around whether it was even wise to hand her a wildcard place at all and Raducanu’s opening match against qualifier Vitalia Diatchenko was held back until the third day and barely drew a crowd on Court 18. When she took the second set to love, there were inquisitive murmurs about her confidence and tenacity and the lack of any gaping weaknesses in her game, but most focus drifted towards her impending A-Level results rather than the prospect of any meaningful progress.
Looking back, that was a way of keeping everything in perspective, to illustrate that this was a bolt from the blue that should be protected from the weight of expectation usually heaped onto British players during the fortnight. But after taking pride of place on Court No 1 on middle Saturday and resoundingly beating the world No 45 Sorana Cirstea, Raducanu was adorning newspapers front and back. It was impossible to contain the sense that something extraordinary was unfolding and even Roger Federer, making what may well prove to be his final Wimbledon appearance, had been relegated to a footnote.
And so, perhaps it should have been expected that the whirlwind would eventually leave Raducanu breathless. Her nerves were clear when she double-faulted twice in her opening game against Ajla Tomljanovic, a fiery and relentless power-hitter, and for Raducanu to regain composure and hold serve felt like a saga in itself. She withstood the war of attrition for a while but that required her to chase each point to its dying breath. By the end of the first set, as Raducanu began to bow her head and hold her stomach, it was clear that the well had been emptied.
There were a lot of subplots to the furore that followed. Some pointed out that Raducanu appeared to have had a panic attack while a short statement later clarified that she had suffered from “breathing difficulties”. John McEnroe suggested Raducanu had been unable to handle the pressure and that “it just got a little bit too much”. He was met with a fierce backlash from sympathetic fans but he insisted this week he has no regrets over his choice of wording.
“I wouldn’t say anything different,” he said. “I’ve never met Emma, I should add that. I’d like to at some point, obviously. I was just giving an educated guess as to what I thought was happening, based on 45 years of being around the professional game. It’s not like she’s the first person it’s happened to.”
If there has been criticism of late in how Raducanu’s career has been handled, from the frequent coaching changes to the multitude of sponsorship deals, the storm after Wimbledon was quelled expertly. She appeared on BBC in an England shirt to give an interview to close the book and move on the narrative from her defeat. The astonishing convergence of skill and fate at Flushing Meadows in effect rendered the trials of Wimbledon obsolete.
But knowing all the triumph and tumult to follow, Raducanu’s defeat at Wimbledon could still be considered the most important match of her short career. She was thrust into an exacting spotlight that put her joy and despair in sharp relief for the world to see and emerged from it emboldened when others might have had their confidence shattered. McEnroe was right that the sudden wave of attention and pressure took a toll, but that is the inherent risk of attempting anything unprecedented. The legend that was created at the US Open could not have existed without the enthralling heartbreak at Wimbledon. It was a trial by fire with history forged from its ashes and, even when Raducanu takes centre stage again next week, it is hard to imagine a match quite so imbued with such tension and raw emotion as the last.