A year into her apprenticeship as a newcomer at the top of her sport, every new week of competition brings new reminders of Emma Raducanu’s precociousness. Just two weeks ago, she played her first professional doubles match. She had never faced a multiple grand slam champion until this week when she demolished two in a row. On Thursday evening, finally, she stepped out onto the court against a top 10 opponent for just the second time of her life.
Standing before Raducanu was Jessica Pegula, one of the most improved players in recent years, and on a cool night in Mason, Ohio the American gave an exhibition of the level required to hang with the very best players in the world as she ended Raducanu’s bright run at the Western and Southern Open. In an intense battle that demanded high octane first-strike tennis, Pegula’s greater firepower and consistency won out as she defeated Raducanu 7-5, 6-4 in the third round.
While Raducanu fell, Cameron Norrie continued his own brilliant run in Mason with a clean, efficient win. Despite his third round match being delayed late into the night, Norrie eased into the quarter-final by easily defeating 19-year-old American wildcard Ben Shelton 6-0, 6-2.
Even in defeat, Raducanu took great satisfaction in her progress throughout her week, comparing the freedom she felt to her title run at the US Open. “I think that it is definitely relieving, because I feel like I’m swinging with the same sort of freedom as I probably had, more similar to last year,” she said. “So it feels really good. I think that I can really take it as a positive week, and I actually feel like I’m heading in a good direction again.”
After dominating Serena Williams 6-4, 6-0 and Victoria Azarenka 6-0, 6-2, a new challenge awaited Raducanu. Pegula may have none of the achievements of Raducanu’s prior opponents, but she has form. A late bloomer who has established herself inside the top 10 at the age of 28 after spending the majority of her career outside of the top 100, she is playing the best tennis of her life.
Pegula is a clean, flat and early ball striker with a particularly searing forehand and those strengths have propelled her to seventh in the rankings and No 3 in the WTA race.
She was determined to take control, stepping inside the baseline and lasering forehands all day. Raducanu initially responded well, suffocating Pegula’s weak second serves and trying to take the initiative herself. But Pegula’s greater raw power and security off both wings was a step above and at no point did her level drop.
From her 10 straight-sets wins in New York to the beatdowns she inflicted on Williams and Azarenka, Raducanu had played very few tight, high quality matches with top players until Thursday night. Raducanu played fairly well herself, but Pegula played better.
“She’s got, I don’t know, eight, nine years on me, so I think if I keep working and it’s great to have the exposure to these sort of opponents who have been out there for so long and doing these things day in and day out and see how they play, see how fast their ball comes,” said Raducanu.
Raducanu described her week in Cincinnati as a “great step” forward, with her making the decision to simply attack more without worrying about any negative consequences. “Recently I was kind of playing and hoping they would miss, and I was pushing the ball around a lot more, rather than this week I just was like, ‘Look, I’m just going to try, I don’t care if I make errors, it’s fine, but I’m just going to overhit if anything,” she said.
With her latest defeat, the task of defending her US Open title is now upon Raducanu – the tournament is just 10 days away. It is far less daunting now. After an extremely positive tournament in which she defeated two big names before being outplayed by a top player in full flow, she will arrive there with a dramatically more positive outlook. Another valuable experience that will only help her growth.
Meanwhile, Norrie arrived in his third round match with all of the experience against the NCAA champion, Shelton, who continued a breakout summer by beating fifth seed Casper Ruud in the previous round. Norrie offered him no real opportunities, neutralising his huge, lefty serve and pinning him behind the baseline.
“He’s No 1 in the nation with college and I was previously No 1 so I know exactly how he’s feeling coming into these tournaments and beating players like myself,” said Norrie. “I really wanted to show them how tough it is on the tour. I wanted to go out and make it as tough as possible for him.”
The next challenge for Norrie is an enormous one. He will face third seed Carlos Alcaraz for a place in the semi-finals. Alcaraz holds a 3-0 record over Norrie, although they played an extremely tight three-setter during the Spaniard’s run to the Madrid Open title. As Norrie began to describe the challenge before him, he simply shrugged: “Look, the kid’s a beast.”