As Emma Raducanu dusted the dirt off her clay-court shoes and discarded them until next year after her second-round loss to Aliaksandra Sasnovich on Wednesday, a notable cycle came to a close. Having made her professional debut in the week after the French Open at the small grass-court tournament in Nottingham last year, Raducanu has now completed one year at the top level of professional tennis.
It is, first of all, a moment of reflection after a manic 12 months in which her life has transformed, a mood she appeared to be in even before her exit in Paris: “We were saying with my team this morning, it’s pretty much a year anniversary since my comeback to competitive tennis,” she said on Thursday. “I was playing a British tour [a low-level national event] in Connaught. I think I have come a long way since then. I think I do really welcome going around the second time.”
Since Raducanu took her first timid steps on the WTA tour last June, when even her first round against Harriet Dart was too overwhelming for her to play her best tennis, she has navigated the madness of her breakthrough coming at Wimbledon. Then, in her first extended trip abroad, she left it having won the US Open.
With her success has come certain difficulties. She has had to adjust to the reality of being a grand slam champion: the target on her back in the locker room, the scrutiny outside of it, the reality that she no longer has nothing to lose on court and even a stalker invading her privacy. Since the US Open Raducanu has lost more than she has won, compiling a 10-13 record, and has pulled up with innumerable physical complaints.
Every struggle Raducanu has had this year should primarily be a reminder how abnormal and astonishing her US Open run was. She was clearly not physically or mentally prepared for the rigours of the tour yet she was able to play at the highest level for 10 consecutive matches from qualifying, winning without dropping a set. That run showed the potential she has but building a career to last and a game that can hold firm regardless of the conditions, form or opposition is an entirely different proposition.
In the WTA Race, the yearly rankings, Raducanu currently sits at 61st, a more accurate reflection of her current stature than her ranking of 11. That is no shame. The only other teenagers above her in the race are Coco Gauff and Leylah Fernandez. Even without her US Open title, simply reaching the top 100 just a year after her WTA debut would have been a significant achievement.
Over the past year, Raducanu has certainly made decisions to be questioned, such as her well-publicised coaching situation. Her preference for frequently changing coaches and relying on various sources for advice predates 2021 and her unconventional methods have clearly helped her to significant success, but given her own inexperience, the notion that she can successfully coach herself is questionable.
Certain parts of her game have also regressed recently, particularly her serve and forehand. More recently, she has spent so much of her first clay-court season experimenting with her game on the surface, mixing in loopier top spin, angles and junk, that on a hot day in faster conditions against Sasnovich her forehand desperately lacked the attacking quality that had contributed so much to her success.
But Raducanu’s overexposure has meant the criticism has often been too much, and the response to some of her losses has been extremely toxic. The tennis career is long, there are slumps to be endured, mistakes to be made. The best players are those who learn from their trials, overcome them and eventually thrive.
It is not only the case for Raducanu; Gauff, Fernandez and all of the other young players of their generation also deserve the space to grow, particularly in an individual sport like tennis where the young athletes learn to make their own decisions and there is nowhere to hide.
The reality for Raducanu though is, as she heads to the grass season and Wimbledon next, the attention, the scrutiny and the noise will be almost unbearable, and she will somehow have to endure it in order to progress further.