The countdown is on. There are just 10 days before Emma Raducanu returns to the courts of Flushing Meadows to defend the US Open title she won in such dramatic circumstances last September; the first female qualifier ever to win a grand slam, it was an extraordinary achievement. But with it came a level of scrutiny rarely faced by a teenager.
Such was the speedy nature of the Raducanu overnight success last year, she became a grand-slam champion while still serving her apprenticeship. And almost from the moment she won in Flushing Meadows, her experience deficit has been all too apparent.
Before the Cincinnati Open, for instance, she had never played a multiple grand-slam winner. On the Ohio courts she played two in successive rounds, demolishing first Serena Williams and then Victoria Azarenka. After that, in Jessica Pegula, she faced a top-10 player for only the second time in her fledgling career. She has played very few tight matches against a high-quality opponent. And at times, it showed.
What she will have learned from that accelerated course in Cincinnati is invaluable. Lessons like how to manage her workload during a tournament, how to ensure she is not emotionally drained, how to control the adrenaline surge that undermined her first appearances at Wimbledon in 2021. The good news is, even in defeat against Pegula she appeared to be positive, upbeat, pleased to be back in contention after a misfiring summer.
Fine-tuning her serve
Pegula is a punchy sort of player, who hits the ball early, low and hard. Raducanu’s sometimes drifty, flighty serve was clearly targeted by the American, at times picked off with an ease verging on contempt. If she is to progress deep into the US Open as she did last year, the British teenager is going to have to be more adept at angling her serve.
During open play, there were rallies with Pegula that she finished with a flourish by directing the ball into places from which it was impossible to return. She did so, she said afterwards, because she was less constrained about doing the right thing, less fearful about being intuitive.
When she does trust her instincts in that way, she looks more like the champion she is. And if she can relax, use her innate ability to exploit the geometry of the court when dispatching her serves, then she will be much more likely to progress.
Building a relationship with her coach
To help her improve her serve is presumably one of the reasons she hired Dmitry Tursunov as her latest coach back in July. His job description was to help her fine-tune her game ahead of the US Open defence.
Her calm, controlled destruction of Williams and Azarenka gave hint to their work together. But relationships between player and coach take time to construct. There is no certainty of immediate results. In that respect, Pegula is a good role model.
Nearly 10 years older than Raducanu, she has finally made her way into the top 10 after years building up her game on the circuit. True, she didn’t have the sudden success that has informed everything to do with Raducanu. But her stoic determination married to a relentless work ethic is nevertheless something worth noting.
Handling the PR storm
For Raducanu, a by-product of her explosive arrival on the scene is that everything she does becomes a drama. Written off after her disappointing summer, she beats Williams and the immediate response is: redemption! She beats Azarenka: she’s on her way back! She loses to Pegula: disaster, she’s not that good after all!
Helping her to plot a calm, unflustered middle way between the extremes is a vital responsibility of her entourage. Fortunately she herself is her own best saleswoman, a natural in front of the camera. Charming, upbeat, even in defeat against Pegula, she was keen to emphasise the positive.
"This week was a great step for me," she said on Thursday. "In the past year it's probably like the first tournament or like one of the few tournaments that I have actually, like started going for my shots more."
It is as well she can do this. With her commercial partners anxious to push her to the centre of the national conversation, there will be no hiding place once the US Open starts. She will need all her natural politeness and good cheer to weather what lies ahead.