Emma Raducanu, One Year Later

By Nick Carter

As the 2022 U.S. Open approaches, it seems appropriate to look back on Emma Raducanu’s title run last year. The teenage British player became the story of the tournament, eclipsing the similarly impressive run of fellow young talent Leylah Annie Fernandez, as well as Daniil Medvedev’s first major title and even Novak Djokovic’s quest for the Calendar Grand Slam.

It was a Hollywood story (I fully expect a movie to be made one day): a rookie winning one of the biggest trophies in their sport. Winning on debut at a specific major isn’t unheard of in tennis; Bianca Andreescu had done the same thing in New York in 2019. But they are still rare, the only other examples in the women’s game in the professional era being Barbara Jordan at the 1979 Australian Open and Evonne Goolagong at Roland-Garros in 1971. In the men’s game, Rafael Nadal famously won Roland-Garros in 2005 on debut, turning 19 just before the final. The only other example on the ATP was Johan Kriek’s 1980 Australian Open title, although his and Jordan’s carry asterisks due to top players not traveling to Australia that often during the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

I’ve probably annoyed a lot of people by daring to suggest Raducanu is in the same category as Evonne Goolagong, let alone Rafael Nadal! And it should be said that since the 2021 U.S. Open, Raducanu has not lived up to the hype that was built around her after that fairytale run. After all, if someone is that good as soon as they turn professional, they’re probably a GOAT in the making, sure to continually put in strong results and win tournaments, right? That’s what happened in the Nadal case. In the 12 months between his first and second Roland Garros trophies, he won nine titles, including four Masters events (‘only’ two of which were on clay!) and managed to beat Roger Federer on a hard court for the second time in their rivalry. 

I must admit I was tempted to think that way in the immediate aftermath of Raducanu’s U.S. Open title. But there is a key difference between Raducanu and Nadal: the Spaniard had been on the professional tour for two years when he won his first title, he’d had time to adjust to the challenges and fully build his game as he more or less skipped the juniors and played against the adults from the age of 15. The only reason he hadn’t played Roland Garros before 2005 was that he was injured at that point in the calendar in 2003 and 2004. Raducanu had played some low-level ITFs and won a couple of titles, but this was her debut year on the main WTA Tour. If you wanted to continue the comparison between Nadal and Raducanu, imagine the former winning Roland-Garros in 2003 or 2004. It’s not reasonable to expect someone to have consistent success at this point in their career, let alone win anything as high profile as a major. 

Screenshot: U.S. Open

So, how did Emma Raducanu win the U.S. Open in 2021 with a game that wasn’t fully developed? Some say it was luck, a sign of how ‘weak’ the WTA Tour is at a time where there isn’t a dominant group of players and first-time major winners are a frequent occurrence. There was indeed a sense of the stars aligning for Raducanu as she reached the second week; she didn’t face a seeded player until the quarterfinals. However, she still had the talent, the mentality and the shots to pull it off as things got tougher deeper into the tournament. She legitimately outplayed the opposition that she faced. Plus, it isn’t uncommon for WTA major winners to not face top 10 opposition during a title run. Ash Barty didn’t beat any higher ranked players than Raducanu in any of her three major titles. 

Fortunately, you can watch the full matches of Raducanu’s run on YouTube from the third round onwards. So, I went back, rewatched and made some notes. I’ll link to the playlist for anyone who wants to do the same and draw their own conclusions.

Let’s start with that third round match against Sara Sorribes Tormo, which is the ultimate comfort match for Raducanu fans. I remember seeing that match with my jaw on the floor with how good she was, winning 6-0, 6-1 in just over an hour. I wasn’t expecting it to be easy; I thought Sorribes Tormo would make it a grind as she always does. But Raducanu completely outhit her, breaking her down with relentless deep hitting and pace to place the ball in awkward places. The Brit was constantly hitting winners, recording at least one in 12 of 13 games played. Nothing Sorribes Tormo tried disrupted Raducanu, be it the slice or bringing her into the net, where Emma is actually pretty comfortable. Everything just worked.  

This was Raducanu’s second major appearance and her second run to the fourth round (unfortunately she has yet to repeat a run like this since). The Shelby Rogers match was where fate intervened in Raducanu’s favour. First of all, the opponent was not Ash Barty, who was beaten by Rogers in the previous round after the American completely changed her game plan midway through the final set and befuddled the then-world number one. However, against Raducanu, Rogers went back to her usual big-hitting style and it was misfiring, particularly off the backhand side. In the early stages of the match, Raducanu was able to compete at times, but often she was misfiring as there was too much pace for her to redirect. However, as the hitting contest continued it was Rogers who was more likely to break down. By contrast, Raducanu hardly missed between the first three games and the final two. Yet again, the serve kept her on track, winning her plenty of free points. Rogers did up her game towards the very end of the match, but Raducanu just upped the pace on her own shots to finish on her terms. Up until then, she wasn’t hitting that many outright winners, partly because of Rogers’ pace but also because she didn’t need to. Rogers wasn’t on her game, but Raducanu was exceptional in navigating a potentially tricky match.

Emma’s weakest performance was actually in her quarter-final against Belinda Bencic. The two players are from the same mold, they are good at match management, have deep shots and can redirect pace very well but aren’t the biggest hitters on tour. Even their relative strengths and weaknesses are similar, with more solid backhands from both (though Bencic hits more winners from that side) and a forehand that can break down (though Raducanu is probably more dangerous with hers when it is working). The match was pretty tight, the margins slim between them and by set two it felt like a battle between two top-class players. The start was scrappy, the turning point coming with Bencic up 3-1 in the second set, as she got distracted by someone calling out during the point at 30-0 on Raducanu’s serve. Raducanu held and took advantage of a loose service game by Bencic to level the set. She then became more solid and consistent, cutting the errors and suddenly her aggressive shots were going past the Swiss, wrestling control to break for 5-3. Cool as ice, Raducanu served out the match from there. Critically, whilst Bencic could get Raducanu on the defence, the teenager’s retrieving skills enabled her to take control of points where she was initially on the back foot. The longer the rallies got, the more likely Raducanu was to win them. Given this was the hardest she’d been pushed, Raducanu impressed with strong serving when she needed it and excellent aggressive play to grab any opportunity that presented itself. Her error count was considerably higher than her other matches, but Raducanu navigated her patches of inaccuracy with aplomb.

By contrast, I was very impressed by her performance against Maria Sakkari in the semi-final. Sakkari likes to pummel her opponents off the court, and was looking for a slug-fest straight out of the gate. However, Raducanu was up for this, coming out swinging and beating Sakkari at her own game by being marginally more consistent. Despite playing one of the most intense players on tour, Raducanu’s aggression was yielding fewer unforced errors than her opponent across the whole match. They were pretty much even on firepower, an impressive feat from Raducanu considering her muscular opponent. Raducanu exceeded Sakkari in the winners count, and in addition to her consistency, good serve, excellent returning, fantastic net play, and strong defence, Raducanu had the edge all around. Sakkari wasn’t having a good serving day, particularly in the first set, and her backhand was ineffective, frequently failing to match Raducanu’s for pace and weight. The second set had its moments, with Sakkari avoiding a double-break deficit with some incredible shots, and had Raducanu dropped her level there was every chance Sakkari could have gotten back in the match. However, Raducanu went for finishing blows to close out her first night match on Arthur Ashe Stadium. On the biggest stage in tennis against one of the best players of the 2021 season, Emma Raducanu looked like she belonged there. She looked like a champion.

So, we come to the legendary final, and on rewatching it I found it was a far better match than the scoreline suggests. Both Raducanu and Leylah Annie Fernandez were just going for it, showing the aggression that got each of them to the final. This was by far Raducanu’s toughest test; even though she was up a break in both sets, it was never a comfortable advantage. Fernandez was still producing the intensity that saw her save match point against Elina Svitolina, break Naomi Osaka when the defending champion served for the match, outlast fellow counter-puncher Angelique Kerber, and frustrate Aryna Sabalenka. (For the record, while I consider myself an Emma Raducanu fan, I am a bigger Fernandez fan.) Fernandez was a match for Raducanu in terms of having a great weapon in the forehand (even if both could misfire), which gave a fun lefty-righty dynamic, as both players’ big (if unreliable weapon) was playing into their opponent’s most reliable (but rarely point-ending) shot. Fernandez also provided a unique challenge because she could match Raducanu’s defensive skills, meaning that she could absorb and counter her opponent’s aggressive play far better than other opponents. The two also countered each other by both returning at a high level and while neither serve began the match at its best, both improved over the course of the match. Points were more often won with winners or great shots than unforced errors. There were very few easy holds for either player. At four games all in the first set, we were shown that both players had won 33 points each, highlighting how dead-even the match was.

Let’s look at how Raducanu won the match and the championship given how difficult the occasion was. For a start, Raducanu showed she was just as able to emotionally fire up herself and the crowd as Fernandez was, which had been critical in the latter’s progression to this final. One edge she had was that whilst her forehand could occasionally be erratic, Fernandez was slightly more vulnerable on hers.

However, in the big moments Raducanu was able to penetrate with her shots better than Fernandez, still being able to up the aggression on the forehand to take control. When she was firing, she hit through Fernandez. The Canadian tried to counter with a similar tactic but it wasn’t as effective. In addition, she managed to reduce her error count slightly more than her opponent could. It was definitely fine margins that made the difference, but that’s how it always is in the latter stages of a major, even in straight-set matches. Of course, everyone remembers how tight the end was, as Raducanu tried to go big to finish it off but started missing. Fernandez, ever a fantastic pressure player, upped her own aggression, fueled by the crowd. In that tight final service game, briefly interrupted by needing treatment for a cut knee (which arguably disrupted Fernandez’s momentum more), Raducanu produced clutch winners to seal it, including that famous out-wide ace on championship point. There was no luck here, it was her being the strongest one in that fight on that day.

Raducanu’s victory wasn’t just about the final match. There were clear positive patterns across all of Raducanu’s matches that meant she earned the title. The biggest thing was a lack of unforced errors despite her aggressive play, staying solid and forcing her opponent to beat her if they could stay consistent enough. Not only could they not do that, but they had to deal with deep, awkwardly placed balls to try and retrieve back into play. Raducanu was always looking to take control of points, but was patient enough to work her way into a rally if needed and likes to play with plenty of margin if possible. The Raducanu serve was so good throughout, usually getting her at least one free point a service game. The backhand was really solid, and while she doesn’t hit that many winners from that side she proved perfectly capable of doing so in the clutch. The state of the Raducanu backhand is the barometer to measure how well she is playing, if it’s not breaking down much then she’s playing well. Additionally, Emma’s aggressive strategy played dividends not only because she executed it well, but she was able to adapt it to the situation and the different sort of players she faced. Be it a match she was dominating (vs Sorribes Tormo), needing to stay solid (vs Rogers), maintaining a slim advantage (vs Bencic), taking it to her opponent (vs Sakkari) or needing to edge a close contest (vs Fernandez), her match management skills were excellent.

Finally, Raducanu just seemed to be having fun on court, smiling and enjoying the tennis and the moment and feeding off the energy of the crowd. Everything was going right, which gives us an idea of why she may have struggled to build on her success. It’s hard to sustain your peak level! Raducanu’s U.S. Open tournament featured far fewer unforced errors from her racquet compared to pretty much any other she’s played, including her Wimbledon run. She doesn’t seem to have found that zone where she can play her best and minimise her errors outside of New York. This is an issue most young players have to work out, which seems to confirm the U.S. Open title was down to her hitting an unexpected purple patch at the perfect time, super early in her career. You could say the same thing about her serve and backhand consistency. For me though, it seems the errors are bothering her more, as if she can’t understand why the shots that were landing in the New York courts aren’t any more. This may contribute to her seeming to enjoy things slightly less (only slightly). She’s a major champion now, and although a lot of the pressure on her now is being manufactured by the media and fans, now she knows what she can produce it must be frustrating not being able to find it again. How she manages this is up to her, but it’s something she needs to look at if she’s to fully enjoy herself again, which is the most important thing. The top two in the WTA Race are actively using a sports psychologist.

While the 2021 U.S. Open was a dream run for Raducanu, there were still some weaknesses highlighted. Her forehand is a great weapon, her biggest, but she has a tendency to overhit it. When she can’t reign in the consistency, that’s the first shot to go. She can be vulnerable to getting tight when closing out, which wasn’t the case in all her matches. She’s right to stay aggressive in the killer moments, but this is where over-hitting can hurt her. All these have been highlighted in matches she’s lost from being a break up in the decider, or even match point up! The Shelby Rogers match also highlighted the challenges Raducanu has against big-hitting players, as she struggled more to redirect the pace and hit with her opponent. Maria Sakkari is also a big hitter but doesn’t have as much pace as someone like Rogers (or Camila Giorgi thinking back to Raducanu’s match in Canada a couple of weeks ago). It’s understandable then why Raducanu has been talking about getting used to the pace of the tour. She probably needs to learn to counter-punch, much like Fernandez can.

Her time with Torben Beltz looked to address some of these issues. However, in retrospect he took her game in the wrong direction as she became much more about grinding out points, reigning in the aggression out of an attempt to make her more consistent. You can see why this would work to minimise errors and deal with the pace better, but it also neutralised a lot of Raducanu’s strengths. When Raducanu parted ways with Beltz during the clay season, she immediately looked freer, but then injuries set in and affected the next couple of months. 

Her new partnership with Dmitry Tursunov shows promise, and may set her in the direction of learning how to harness her aggression effectively again. Her matches against Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in Cincinnati last week showed very positive signs – her form was reminiscent of what she produced in New York. She also showed excellent match management skills, dealing well with her opponent when they were playing well and not allowing her own level to drop to let them back in. Jessica Pegula was more of a challenge as she started that match far better and was able to stay strong on serve and outhit Raducanu in most of the rallies. However, even though Raducanu lost that Round of 16 match in Cincinnati, she maintained her aggression to stay competitive for the whole match. There were unforced errors and maybe a little too much margin on her shots, but it was still one of the more positive runs for the Brit this season. If you look at Raducanu’s 2022 as a whole, it’s actually not that bad when you compare her to her peers. She’s the fourth highest ranked teenager in the WTA Race (with only five in the top 100!) and the eighth highest ranked player aged under 22. If there was a Next Gen WTA Finals she would be almost dead set to qualify. She’s ahead of the vast majority of her age group and those ahead of her are having exceptional seasons.

Looking back on Emma Raducanu’s US Open title one year on, though some external factors meant some things fell her way, she still earned that trophy. She had to contend with very different opponents, on different days and adapt to circumstances as they changed. Each match seemed to be on the Raducanu racquet, as she ended up being the one who dictated how things progressed and had the ability to take control and have the final say. She found a way to play aggressively yet consistently and stay mentally strong. It was one of the great moments in sport and an impressive achievement regardless of the circumstances. She hasn’t been able to perform to that same standard since, but recent form suggests she can do so and her overall season still shows she will be a contender for majors for years to come. It all comes down to whether she can harness her aggression and reign back the unforced errors.

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